Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

The origins of the word “hospital”

Simon Wein
Petach Tikvah, Israel

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word “hospital” is derived from the Old French “ospital,” meaning hostel, shelter, lodging, or shelter for the needy. The origin can be traced to the Latin “hospitale” and persists in the modern French “hôpital.”

The OED states further:

The sense of “charitable institution to house and maintain the needy” in English is from early 15c.; the meaning “institution for sick or wounded people” is recorded by the 1540s. The same word, contracted, is hostel and hotel. The sense shift in Latin from duties to buildings might have been via the common term cubiculum hospitalis “guest-chamber.” The Latin adjective use continued in Old French, where ospital also could mean “hospitable” and ospitalite could mean “hospital.”

Could there be an alternate origin and explanation?

The Latin language and alphabet arguably came from the ancient Phoenicians, who as sea-farers crossed over to Italy and Greece some three thousand years ago. Their language was very similar to and, in fact, cognate with Hebrew and Aramaic.

In modern Hebrew, the word for hospital is “beit cholim,” or the “house of the sick.” But the verb to hospitalize is based on the Aramaic-Hebrew word “ashpez,” meaning to host or to invite a guest into your home and look after them hospitably. Phonetically, “ashpez” is similar to “hospice”/“hospital,” and certainly its meaning is similar, both in its historical use and in modern Hebrew. It is therefore possible that the word hospital is actually derived from Aramaic, which preceded Latin.


Online Etymology Dictionary. “Hospital (n.)” Last updated March 16, 2020. https://www.etymonline.com/word/hospital#etymonline_v_14480.

DR. SIMON WEIN trained in medical oncology and palliative care in Melbourne Australia. He now heads the palliative care unit at the Davidoff Cancer Center in Petach Tikvah, Israel.

Highlighted in Frontispiece Volume 15, Issue 4 – Fall 2023

Winter 2023




2 responses

  1. This is an informative short piece indeed for which thanks to Dr Wein

    As a side issue to the Phoenician aspect of the word ‘hospital’ it is interesting to note that in the Maltese language [which is of Siculo-Arabic origin] the word is rendered as ‘sptar’ or l-isptar’ with a euphonic vowel and definite article added.

    The Knights of Malta [as they are commonly known] were Knights Hospitaller in their heyday – and the period of rule over Malta is known as Hospitaller Malta 1530-1798

  2. Aspey Daley
    Gather in the poor

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