In Hebrew, the difference between the words "Sister" and "Brother" is that "Sister" has an additional suffix, as might be expected given the structure of the language. Also, the Hebrew word for a female nurse and the word for "Sister" are the same word, and likewise for a male nurse and the word for "Brother".

These are three things I've been wanting to know and haven't found any conclusive information about:

  1. It occurred to me that in UK English, "Sister" is another term for nurse (a female one I guess). What about a male nurse? Would he be called a brother, a sister or a nurse? The uncertainty indicates, for me, a rather archaic background (which I think is associated with different gender roles).

  2. What are the roots of referring to a nurse as "sister"? This could shed light on the previous question. It sounds very biblical to me.

I would really appreciate perspectives on this topic.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – tchrist
    Commented Feb 15, 2017 at 2:08

9 Answers 9


Yes, nursing as a career has religious origins and, until fairly recently, nurses were generally nuns - sisters.

Take a look at the history of nursing on Wikipedia:

From the earliest times most cultures produced a stream of nurses dedicated to service on religious principles. Both Christendom and the Muslim World generated a stream of dedicated nurses from their earliest days. In Europe before the foundation of modern nursing, Catholic nuns and the military often provided nursing-like services.[2] It took until the 20th century for nursing to become a secular profession.

Incidentally I find your question interesting - I assumed this was common knowledge as this is still well within living memory - my own grandmother is only 71 and she has often shared her recollections of the 'strict' nuns on the maternity wards when she had her children. It's odd to think that the origins of words like this are slipping out of general knowledge and into history.

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    In WWI, the American Red Cross nurses (who were generally not nuns) that went over to Europe were called "Sister" plus their given name, such as Sister Barbara. This was done purposefully and for political reasons. Being American, the nurses came from many ethnic origins, and their surnames could have implied sympathy to a particular country in the European conflict (i.e. a nurse with a German surname serving in France). Commented Feb 13, 2017 at 20:13
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    My grandmother was a nurse and went to a women's only nursing school (during/after WWII). Her boss was a nun as it was a Catholic hospital.
    – adeady
    Commented Feb 15, 2017 at 19:01
  • There were no Catholic orders of nuns in the UK between the Reformation and the late 19th century. Florence Nightingale established the nursing profession in a secular context, but presumably the title 'Sister' for a senior nurse came from the tradition of nursing nuns in Europe. Commented Sep 21, 2017 at 16:57

In Czech (Central Europe) it is similar to English.

  1. "Sestra" (sister in English) or "Zdravostní sestra" (medical sister) is used for both gender and is official term for this job (a man with the same position can be called "Bratr" (brother in English) but it is not much used even now).

  2. The Czech language official term is "[medical] sister" ("[zdravotni] sestra") but common term is "little sister" ("sestřička") with very positive connotation (sister which I really like, regardless of age).

    Even sexists here, who consider lot of "women's work" (like cleaning, cooking, sewing, taking care of home etc.) to be unworthy of a "real man", take for granted that "no man is enough qualified to be [medical] sister and any women would do it better because women have much softer hands".

    So "medical brother" is "looked down on" not for doing "a woman's work", but for being "clearly less good at this work" - in the same sense as "a woman fighter cannot be a match for a male fighter, because she cannot be possibly as strong."

  3. The roots are the same as the other answers (nuns taking care of ill people in hospitals). A "[medical] sister" is now required to have formal medical education (at least 3 years, sometimes more).

    Other professions which help people such as the elderly or disabled to take care of themselves do not have the title "sestra" (sister) and do not have such strong requirements, nor reputation.

So in Czech it is just "Sestra" (sister) and no other term for "nurse" is used.

Also terms like grandma and grandpa are used as honorific for old people, aunt and uncle for older people of your parents' age (but now mainly in the countryside, and even there it is becoming obsolete). Sometimes "mother" can be used as honorific while addressing an older woman, but it is now really archaic.

So "Sister" (as title in sense similar to common people addressing a nun - as a member of Christian sisters, not as a sibling) for "nurse" looks natural.

In all those cases it is meant as honorific to address the other as being "of my family" even when we are not directly blood related. In case of "sister" it is addressing with respect as for those others mentioned, not protective as for a real younger sibling.

https://cs.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sestra (rough translation by me):

Sister is common naming for sibling of woman gender

Usually it means siblings with the same both parent. If each sibling have eq. different father, it is called "stepsister" ("nevlastni sestra")

Other meanings:

As religious sisters are names nuns. As nuns taked care about ill people in hospitals, we call sisters also nurses in hospitals and medical offices. On contratory man workers in the same positions we usually do not call brothers.

Titles brothers and sisters use also Sokol scouts, christians (someplace commonly, someplace not) and some more traditional members of KDU-ČSL (christian political party).

See also:



Family tree

https://cs.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zdravotn%C3%AD_sestra (medical sister)

  • Same thing in Serbian: zdravstvena sestra, while male nurse is commonly called brat.
    – AndrejaKo
    Commented Feb 13, 2017 at 19:47
  • Re: "Sometimes "mother" can be used as honorific while addressing an older woman, but it is now really archaic." This may be coming back into fashion ... replying to someone's post on social media with "mom" used in the sense of "I support what you just posted/said to such a degree, please adopt me". For lack of a better citation see blog.dictionary.com/mom-internet-slang
    – cmcf
    Commented Feb 15, 2017 at 2:42

In western Europe before they became secular institutions most hospitals were built and maintained by the church. The sister term most likely comes from the nuns that were running the place

  • That's very interesting. So, that would have to say that in Hebrew, the relationship between "Brother" and "nurse" is rather technical, whereas "sister" is derived from a non-Jewish source.
    – Meitar
    Commented Feb 13, 2017 at 11:44
  • not sure about Hebrew but yea, it might be possible that "sister" is a translation borrowed from Europe
    – AZ.
    Commented Feb 13, 2017 at 11:49
  • 1
    @Meitar In Hebrew, the term sister as applied to a nurse is actually short for merciful sister - a translation from the Russian Сестра милосердия which has clear religious connotations. Commented Feb 13, 2017 at 13:28

in regards to 2: in Bulgarian, the word for nurse is "[meditsinska] sestra" ([medical] sister). there is no masculine version of the term, so the male occupants of the profession are either just called "sestra" or "mŭzhka sestra (man-sister)", the latter sometimes having a pejorative connotation.

  • 2
    Can you provide some links to some definitions to support your post? Also consider improving your formatting :)
    – Hank
    Commented Feb 13, 2017 at 14:02
  • 1
    In India, I've actually heard the hospital staff calling the male nurses "brother". More logical than "man-sister" :-)
    – Nav
    Commented Feb 13, 2017 at 16:39
  • Male nurses are no longer as rare as they used to be. The number of Indian men taking up the nursing profession has gone up sharply in the last 15 years. I am not sure they are being called 'brother' as a routine case, but they certainly ought to be! Nursing is one of the noblest professions in the world along with fire & rescue, medicine, police, ambulance driving, pilots and the armed (defence) services, when we consider the stress and risk accepted for the good of society. Commented Apr 28, 2017 at 18:46

Do you know of any other languages or tongues in which "nurse" is somehow related to siblings noun?

Both Dutch and Croatian do it. In Croatian sestra means both sister and nurse, medicinska sestra being the full term for nurse. In Dutch zuster, meaning sister is also used for nurse, but it's a bit old-fashoined. 'Ziekenzuster' only means nurse.

What about a male nurse?

I have not heard the term for brother ([brat]) used for male nurse in Croatian. But in Dutch '[broeder]', an archiac form of 'broer' meaning brother, is used for male nurse. As in the female form, 'zieken-' ("for the ill") can be added: 'ziekenbroeder'.

(I have not linked the male terms because i can only post 2 links)


Do you know of any other languages or tongues in which "nurse" is somehow related to siblings noun?

The Swedish word sjuksyster (sjuk = sick, syster = sister) is still in in widespread informal use even though it has been supplanted with sjuksköterska in formal contexts. Even less formally just syster or even syrra (colloquial term for sister) is used.

What about a male nurse?

Gender-specific occupational titles are mostly abolished in Swedish. For most occupations the old masculine form is used regardless of gender. However, sjuksköterska is a rare exception (maybe the only?) in that the old feminine form is used regardless of gender. Hence, a male nurse is called sjuksköterska even though it is etymologically a feminine form (the masculine form would have been sjukskötare). I have heard male nurses referred to as sjuksyster, syster and syrra, but since these terms are informal the mileage may vary.


In Turkish the word "hemşire" (hamshira) is used for the nurse. This word is borrowed from the persian language, where "ham" means "same" and "shir" means "milk". So literally, hemshira refers to people who share the same milk, namely sisters. (I think brother would be "hamshir" in Persian but I am not sure). In Turkish hemşire was used for both sister and nurse in the old days, but in modern Turkish "hemşire" is used almost always for the nurse. There are other words for sister, like "kız kardeş" (female sibling) or abla (older female sibling).(http://tureng.com/tr/turkce-ingilizce/sister) As a native Turkish speaker I am not sure whether the word "hamshira" in the original Persian language also stands for both nurse and sister.

In Turkish-English dictionaries "hemşire" is translated both as nurse and sister, for example: [http://tureng.com/tr/turkce-ingilizce/hem%C5%9Fire]

Here is a discussion of the word "hamshira": https://forum.wordreference.com/threads/urdu-can-i-be-your-hamshirah.1190200/

  • 1
    You may consider adding some sources to your post for more support. Maybe some links to meanings of the Turkish words you include in your explanation?
    – Hank
    Commented Feb 13, 2017 at 16:24
  • 1
    I should point out here that the etymology for nurse is almost the same, it comes from nutrix ‎(“wet nurse”), which came from nutrire ‎(“to suckle”), and connected to "nutrition" and "nourish". Even today, "nurse" as a verb means to breastfeed. Commented Feb 15, 2017 at 1:14

One more language for the list: The German word for nurse is "Krankenschwester", literally a sister ("Schwester") for the sick ("krank"). I think it's often shortened to just "Schwester".


I must presume you are referring to modern Hebrew? And if, so, then the similarity (or same usages) of Sister and Nurse are probably of religious (and specifically European Catholic) origin, since Nurses were, in fact, "sisters" (nuns).

I am not as familiar with modern Hebrew word use, which probably also varies between the major groups (Ashkenazi, Sephardic, etc). However, I am better aquainted with Biblical Hebrew and have a few different concordances and different Hebrew Bibles.

From what I see, Ancient Hebrew does not use this convention. The world for sister "AcHoTh" (or my sister, "acHoThi") is not the same as Nurse (caretaker/servant sense), "sakan." Nurse, in the infant nursing sense, is "aman" (which also has connotations with ideas like "trust", "believe", "guardian", "support", "confirm", "reliable"...

Therefore, I am sure any similarity you now note is of a more recent (last 1000 years) development.


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