Merriam-Webster's Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, first edition (1898) has this entry for hospice:

Hospice, n. {F., fr. L. hospitium hospitality, place where strangers are entertained, fr. hospes stranger, guest. See HOST a landlord.} A convent or monastery which is also a place of refuge or entertainment for travelers, as in the Alps.

The Fifth Collegiate (1936) and Sixth Collegiate (1949) offer this reduced definition:

hospice, n. {F., fr. L. hospitium hospitality, an inn, fr. hospes stranger, guest.} An inn for travelers, esp. one kept by a religious order.

And the Seventh Collegiate (1963) and Eighth Collegiate (1973) have this:

hospice n {F, fr. L hospitium, fr. hospit-, hospes host — more at HOST} : a lodging for travelers, young persons, or the underprivileged esp. when maintained by a religious order

But the Ninth Collegiate (1983) introduces a new definition to accompany the older one:

hospice n {F, fr. L hospitium, fr. hospit-, hospes host — more at HOST} 1 : a lodging for travelers, young persons, or the underprivileged esp. when maintained by a religious order 2 : a facility or program designed to provide a caring environment for supplying the physical and emotional needs of the terminally ill

The emergence of "young persons" as a particular clientele for hospices in the Fifth Collegiate is interesting in that MW's definition of hostel expanded from simply "A place of lodging; inn" in the Fifth Collegiate to "1. A place of lodging; inn. 2. One of a system of supervised lodgings or shelters for use by youth, as on hiking trips" in the Sixth Collegiate. The specific application of both hostel and hospice to young people might be merely coincidental, although the timing suggests to me some possibility of fuzziness among English speakers about which term to use to refer to lodgings for young travelers.

Be that as it may, my questions about hospice relate to the circumstances surrounding its emergence in the sense of "facility or program providing palliative care for the terminally ill":

When and where did that sense of the word hospice originate among English speakers?

Wikipedia has an extensive article on hospice, but its coverage of the origin of the relevant meaning of the term in English is meager and somewhat dubious:

The English word "hospice" is a borrowing from French. In France however, the word "hospice" refers more generally to an institution where sick and destitute people are cared for, and does not necessarily have a palliative connotation.

As the Collegiate Dictionary quotations above indicate, for many years the word in English meant simply "a place of refuge or entertainment for travelers"—so, if hospice in the sense of "an institution where sick and destitute people are cared for" arrived in English from an existing French meaning, it did so as an adjunct to a prior meaning in English that did not specifically focus on sickness or destitution.

  • It probably came from Dame Cicely Saunders who founded the first hospice care hospital in England. She founded: St Christopher's Hospice used as a model for the movement in the US.
    – Lambie
    Nov 30, 2023 at 21:27
  • There appears to be relevant information in Michael Stolberg; A History of Palliative Care, 1500-1970 (2017); however, the snippets in Google Books are too small.
    – DjinTonic
    Nov 30, 2023 at 21:39
  • @DjinTonic Yes, and that snippet shows her name. She started the first hospice. That was in 1967.
    – Lambie
    Nov 30, 2023 at 22:14
  • Wikipedia gives some historical details including various institutions with the explicit title Hospice for the dying which seems to have later been contracted
    – Henry
    Dec 1, 2023 at 9:31

1 Answer 1


I found this intriguing entry in The Oxford Dictionary of New Words: A Popular Guide to Words in the News (1991):

hospice / noun

A nursing home dedicated to the care of the dying and the incurably ill.

A specialization of the word hospice, which originally referred to a house of rest for pilgrims etc., usually run by a religious order; by the end of the nineteenth century the word was used for any home for the destitute. The early hospices for the dying were mostly set up by religious orders too.

The word hospice has actually been in use for a home for the terminally ill since the turn of the [twentieth] century, but did not become widely known in this sense until the rise of the hospice movement of the late seventies and early eighties, which led to the setting up of hospices in many countries as places where people could be given a caring environment in which to spend their last days.

Mother Frances is best known as the founder ..., fundraiser and administrator of Helen House, in Oxford, England, probably the world's first hospice for dying or acutely afflicted children. —Washington Post 30 Aug. 1985, section B, p. 1.

He pays full tribute to his inspirer, Dame Cicely Saunders, who pioneered the hospice movement. —Church Times 8 Aug. 1986, p. 7

Sure enough, an advertisement at the back of The Catholic Who's Who and Year Book 1908 (1908) has an advertisement for St. Joseph's Hospice for the Dying—an institution located on Mare Street in London—that includes the following description:

The Hospice, as its name bespeaks, is set apart for the dying, namely those within measurable distance of death, both male and female. Though mainly intended for the lonely poor, it is open to every class and country; and may therefore with strict justice solicit the kindly and liberal support of all.

Interestingly, the advertisement notes that entering St. Joseph's wasn't necessarily a one-way ticket:

The Hospice, which opened on January 15, 1905, is now furnished to accommodate 25 patients. Since then over 100 souls have passed into Eternity, and many others have returned to their homes having regained strength.

Even earlier is Our Lady's Hospice for the Dying at Harold's Cross in Dublin, founded in December 1879 and mentioned in Rosa Barrett, Guide to Dublin Charities (1884):

Object and further particulars.— Patients suitable for the Hospitals for Incurables not admitted, as this is intended solely for the dying. Wakes are discountenanced. Some pay-patients are admitted, though the Institution is chiefly for the poor. Mental or infectious diseases, or cancer cases, are excluded till more accommodation can be provided.

For now, the earliest instance (that I'm aware of) of hospice used in English in the relevant sense is from 1879, with the founding and subsequent published description (in 1884) of Our Lady's Hospice in Dublin.

  • 1
    And, interestingly for those who don't know, a hospital was originally an institution providing hospitality to needy people. Before the rise of modern scientific medicine, wealthier sick people were expected to be nursed at home or, if they fell ill while travelling, to be taken in by a nearby house. Dec 1, 2023 at 9:21
  • It should be noted here that the name of the institution was St. Joseph's Hospice for the Dying, which suggests that those who named it did not think that the word hospice by itself implied anything about dying. It thus seems that even though the word was used for such institutions in the late 19th and early 20th century, its meaning was broader, and that it was only in the second half of the 20th century that caring specifically for the terminally ill became a part of the meaning of the word (which, in turn, led to the broader sense dropping out of use).
    – jsw29
    Dec 1, 2023 at 17:54

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