Today in the chart

Wise Word of the Month for June: Honor

What does it mean to honor someone across their lifespan, and how is this related to ethics?

This month’s Wise Word is honor as used by Sharon Burc, MSN, APRN, PHCNS-BC, APHN-BC, HWNC-BC:

“The nursing perspective is powerful because 1) we can create measurable positive outcomes for the public; 2) we understand that health involves people in all their facets (body, mind, and spirit) and the environment they inhabit, and 3) we are committed to the ethic of protecting and honoring all people across the lifespan.”

Sharon’s use of the word honor is striking upon first reading: what does it mean to honor someone across their lifespan? And how is this related to ethics?

In unpacking the history of the word honor (and its multitude of senses!), it becomes clear that honor is the perfect word to encapsulate the concept of a nursing “ethic of care,” as implied by Burch.

In the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the first definition of the word honor is to demonstrate due respect or reverence for (a god, person, or thing) by some act, rite, ceremony, etc.

But this is different from the sense in which honor is used in the quotation from Burch. When she writes, “to protect and honor all people across the lifespan,” she implies the second sense of the word honor, defined in the OED as “to hold in honor, respect highly; to treat or regard with honor or respect.” Not only that, Burch implies that honor is part of a larger ethical system upheld by nurses to the benefit of people everywhere.

Burch is not the first to use honor in this way.

Under each of its definitions, the OED lists quotations of usage - going back as far as they can into the history of the English Language. And it is there that we find an example of honor related to healthcare in an old-but-familiar prayer:

 Wilt thou loue her, coumforte her, honor and kepe her in sickenesse and in health?

This quotation was first recorded in writing in 1549 and is recognizable today as part of a traditional marriage ceremony (that’s how it was used back then, too!)

The meaning of this centuries-old prayer is captured in Sharon’s more modern nurses’ creed; we can see clearly that “to protect and honor all people across the lifespan” is quite the same as “keeping someone in sickness and in health.”

The implication here is powerful: in a marriage relationship, there is a verbal promise that each spouse will support one another throughout their lifetime, which most certainly will contain seasons of health and sickness. Burch suggests that the profession of nursing offers the same promise to the public: to value, respect, and support all human life - in times of sickness and health.

This aligns with what philosophers call the Ethics of Care, which holds that moral action centers on interpersonal relationships and goes beyond the moral question of ‘what is right’ versus ‘what is wrong’ to the very real, ‘How do I respond?’ The Ethics of Care emphasizes that ‘care’ lies in our response to individual people - for nurses, to their patients.

Burch’s use of the word honor illustrates the weight of the nursing profession: it is more than just a medical job; it is a commitment to care. 

In other words, a commitment to honor people. Always.

Samantha Beaver | Linguist; Author; Senior Workplace Communications Analyst; Communications and Research Consultant; NOBC News Editor

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