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A valetudinarian is unduly anxious about his health. The everyday word for this condition might be thought to be hypochondriac, but there’s a subtle difference: the hypochondriac thinks he’s always ill, but the valetudinarian takes great care to ensure he never is.

This polysyllabic and literary term is a good choice at times when it is desirable not to seem too unkind. In November 2004, the word appeared in an obituary of the football writer Arthur Hopcraft in the Independent: “Fastidious, set in his ways and prematurely balding, Hopcraft had an air of the valetudinarian bachelor about him from a relatively early age.”

The word appears in the language in 1703, in the third volume of William Dampier’s A New Voyage Round the World. Dampier was an extraordinary explorer, map-maker and buccaneer; a couple of years after he published this volume he commanded a privateering voyage during which Alexander Selkirk, the model for Robinson Crusoe, was marooned. He wrote: “Many of our English Valetudinarians have gone from Jamaica ... to the I. Caimanes ... to live wholly upon Turtle that abound there”. (He’s referring to the Cayman Islands, these days famous more as a refuge for the money of the reclusive rich than for sick people.) A writer in the Gentleman’s Magazine in 1787 remarked that: “Every one knows how hard a task it is to cure a valetudinarian.”

The word is from Latin valetudinarius, in ill health.

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Page created 11 Jun 2005