I’m wondering why we refer to providing legal or medical services as a practice of law or medicine, respectively. For example, we say that a lawyer practices law or a doctor practices medicine. This makes these fields sound like they’re some special art, but what is the historical origin of the usage of the word practice in this context?

  • 1
    possible duplicate of "Practise the piano" vs. "practise medicine"
    – Daniel
    Jul 5, 2012 at 14:21
  • 1
    This is more about the history of this usage, rather than this usage compared to other, more common, usages.
    – bwDraco
    Jul 5, 2012 at 14:22
  • Diagnosis really means two people not knowing
    – Dr House
    Aug 21, 2019 at 1:06

3 Answers 3


The word’s earliest meaning was, in the OED's definition, ‘to pursue or be engaged in (a particular occupation, profession, skill, or art)’. It is first recorded as such in 1421 and that is the meaning it continues to have when we speak of practising (BrEng spelling) law or medicine. At around the same time, it seems to have been used to mean ‘to exercise oneself in a skill or art in order to acquire or maintain proficiency, especially in music’, but it is not until 1542 that it is recorded as meaning ‘to perform (an activity) or exercise (a skill) repeatedly or regularly in order to acquire, improve or maintain proficiency’. That is the meaning it most commonly has today.


One of the principle meanings of practice is

the continuous exercise of a profession b : a professional business; especially : one constituting an incorporeal property

This derives no doubt from earlier meanings of systematic performance of a skill or action.

The term is not limited to law and medicine. Consultancies, engineering firms, architects, and many other kinds of professionals also refer to their firms, specialties or lines of business as practices.


When there is no definitive way to do something in a particular profession, then it can be referred to as a practice.

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    I think this needs a little more than a single sentence. Do you have some support for this assertion? Jun 24, 2021 at 12:37

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