This is an impressive-looking word, no? It smacks of valor and value and perhaps a nice valet for the hale and hearty hero (more than just some dude with a ‘tude), and it’s such a long word, with that academic extension that brings to mind abecedarian and honorificabilitudinitatibus and veterinarian and valedictorian… Certainly the object of this word should fare well, no?
Well, yes. And no. Indeed, the object of this word should farewell… is, in fact, preparing to say “farewell,” and likely has been for some long time and may yet for years to come. A valetudinarian is the sort of person once commonly called an invalid (note the stress not on the middle syllable), or at the very least someone eternally ailing. Indeed, the val in valetudinarian is related to the val in invalid. But it is related even more closely to the vale in valedictorian!
Is this the vale of the shadow of death? Actually of health. You see, a common parting salutation in Latin was “Vale!” (said like “wall eh” and in later times “vall eh”). That meant “Be well!” A valedictorian is someone who says the farewell to and for the class – fare well and be well.
But that does not mean that valetudinarian originated in “saying goodbye”. No, it is the health focus – as valere meant “be well” or “be strong”, valetude (now obsolete in English) meant “state of health”. And valetudinary meant “focused on health”, which of course (especially in the 1500s, when it first showed up) meant “unwell”. So a valetudinarian is someone who is sickly – and is focused on that sickliness. Invalid – not strong: in “not” plus validus “strong”. Like a hypochondriac, only actually sick. The sort of person who will always remind you “I won’t be around much longer…”
And by syllable seven comfy in heaven? Not even with the various nostrums and polychrests that may avail untrained self-medicators. But eventually, there will be that tombstone, inscribed by request: “It was only a matter of time.” And so farewell.
Thanks to Elaine Phillips for suggesting valetudinarian.