What is the etymology of the word medicine and how did it come to be used by Native Americans to describe something that does not strictly meet the denotative meaning of medicine?

Or is that just a Hollywood piece of nonsense?

10 Answers 10


Medicine comes from the Latin [ars] medicina, from medicus (physician), from medeor (to heal). The root mad- or med- occurs in several languages: middle Persian madha (medical science, wisdom); Sanscrit medha (intelligence, wisdom); ancient Greek medos (advice), medomai (to think about). Consider also words such as meditate, from the Latin meditari.

I'd venture to say that med- or mad- was a paleo-indoeuropean root related to considering, advising or knowledge. In archaic times, giving advice on how to treat illnesses must have been the prerogative of the learned man, the priest. It turns out, then, that using "medicine man" for "shaman" might have been more appropriate than it seems at first.

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    Except that the term "medecine man" dates from the 17th century at the earliest, so the meaning of the Proto-Indo-European term would have no relevance.
    – morphail
    Oct 10, 2011 at 17:36
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    @morphail: thanks for the downvote. I don't think you understood what I wrote.
    – LaC
    Oct 11, 2011 at 8:57
  • What did I misunderstand?
    – morphail
    Oct 11, 2011 at 20:22
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    I was not suggesting that the term "medicine man" is directly descended from its distant PIE ancestor, or that the people who introduced it were aware of the etymology. Rather, it just happened by chance that this new coinage has a meaning which seems more appropriate in light of the etymology, and this is serendipitous precisely because the people who coined it were probably not aware of those roots.
    – LaC
    Oct 12, 2011 at 4:35
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    Skr. medhá- is not from the same root as the other words quoted (it is rather from the extension of the *men-/*mn̥- root that also gives ‘mind’ and ‘math[ematics]’). Aug 14, 2013 at 16:33

It appears this is derived from the French term for "doctor" (médécin). See Encyclopedia of Native American healing By William S. Lyon.

Medecine Man The most popular term applied to Native North American healers ... The origin of the term can be traced at least to the time of the French Jesuit missionaries during the seventeenth century. Among the Huron, Mangagnais, Ottawa, and other inhabitants of New France, the missionaries wrote of the healers, the hommes-médécins ...

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    It seems this is a case of a poor google translation back in the 17th century.
    – horatio
    May 25, 2011 at 17:17

According to the OED, "medecine man" is a calque (loan translation) of Ojibwa mashkikiiwinini "physician" (mashkiki "medicine" + inini "man"). The first citation is 1801.


Interesting the etymology doesn't seem to go anywhere. ie. medicine from the latin medica, meaning medicine = very helpful!

This article discusses it, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC195119/pdf/mlab00237-0040.pdf

The medicine man usage for shaman/healer is from 1800 apparently and is presumably either an native term based on it being doctors that the white people go to for help - so a doctor was the white man's shamen and the definition of doctor was a medicine man.

Or an English invention for what they thought shamans were doing - and some author decided to render it in simplified "native speak".

  • @z7sg - yes, I don't know which way round. I'm guessing it's a native invention because the English speakers would call the shaman doctor
    – mgb
    May 25, 2011 at 16:07
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    Doesn't the usage of medicine in the Native American context also have greater scope than simply 'medicine man'? For instance: "That is some bad medicine..." referring to a spiritual or psychological experience rather than some decoction of nature's materia? May 25, 2011 at 16:15
  • @Harris - I think those are all much more modern usages. Alcohol as bad medicine is older but isn't really the same thing.
    – mgb
    May 25, 2011 at 16:38

Disclaimer: I know nothing about Latin.

But regarding the etymology of medicine from Latin medica this Perseus Project entry is very interesting and seems to indicate that it is derived from medeor and is related to the Greek μαθήσιος - the act of learning, acquiring knowledge.


I think most answers strayed far off topic. It was settlers who originally called the shamen "medicine man" since one of his functions was as healer. Since most of his functions were associated with spiritual magic the word medicine became associated with spirits and magic. I have most often among the Navajo heard the term "bad magic" associated with things that will bring bad luck, contain harmful spirits or will bring evil. A navajo will not touch or approach any Anasazi artifacts, they will always say "bad medicine".


The Shaman was not a simple doctor, since he dedicated himself also to matters that didn't strictly concern medical stuff as we know it. But about the Etymology, I found something else and here it goes (taken from the NOAD):

ORIGIN Middle English: via Old French from Latin medicina, from medicus ‘physician.’


As pointed out earlier I have also found this detailed article on the etymology of "medicine" by T. Charen http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC195119/ which however doesn't go anywhere. Especially I am not fully convinced with the discussions, as none of the sources date back to before 11th century. Notice that Avicenna (latinized from Abu Ali ibn Sina) who is the father of modern medicine lived in the 10th century. I strongly believe that "Medicina" also comes from Persian "Madadi Sina" which would mean "The Aid of Sina", in a very similar way that his name was latinized to Avicenna.


The word medicine originates from the name of Medea, the main character of the Greek myth of Argonauts. According to the myth Medea is a daughter of Aeete, King of Colchis (country of Georgia at present) who uses secret recipes of herbs to cure diseases. See the text of the myth: http://www.milica.com.au/greek_myths/legends/argo1_t.htm

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    This is not true. The word is from Latin medicīna "art or practice of healing".
    – morphail
    Oct 10, 2011 at 17:15
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    @morphail: since the Latin is considerably younger than the Greek, you need to show that medecina doesn't come from Medea:easier said than done. Jan 20, 2012 at 22:14
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    Not that hard to do, really. Medicīna (from medicus) is quite easily derived from medeor within Latin itself. Μήδεια, on the other hand, has a long e in the first syllable and a diphthong in the second syllable, neither of which would have been ignored when borrowing the term into Latin. Medicus has three short vowels; none long. Aug 14, 2013 at 16:40

Medicine comes from Medea, the daughter of King Ayet, who governed ancient Georgia, at the black sea cost. Medea was mixing different herbs for healing purposes.

  • That only answers one half of the question.
    – RegDwigнt
    Nov 15, 2012 at 12:20

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