Everyone working in the healthcare world knows they should never say the Q word. But where did that rule come from, and is it a myth or is it real?

Does it have something to do with the letter itself?

Q is the 17th letter of the english alphabet. The letter before it is P and the letter right after it is R. Does that mean there are some bad P words and some bad R words just because they are so close to the letter Q in the alphabet?

Does it have something to do with Q’s shape? Possibly originating from the Egyptian hieroglyph for ‘a cord of wool’, which is pronounced “qaw”.

The word you never say in healthcare
Egyptian hieroglyph for the letter Q

Nothing is jumping out at me yet on its origin.

The word you never say in healthcare

So where did it begin?

I looked all over and couldn’t find anything that told me where this began. You would think that saying something so ‘dangerous’ would have a solid history behind it. A horrific chapter in our textbooks, with gruesomely graphic photographs, showing us what happened to the first poor soul who used the Q word while practicing medicine.

My search went way back as I tried to find anything. But then I got distracted because I found the first Sesame Street episode (0043) where in Scene 8, Gordon presents the letter Q, which was followed by an educational snippet. I was on edge watching this whole clay animation by Jim Henson because I knew Quincy was going to say the word. This was January 7, 1970.

After watching the animation, I started wondering if the Q word is bad in other contexts. Or does it only apply when you are commenting on your shift in the Emergency Department, in the ambulance, or in the medical tent? Example, what if I was in the medical tent talking to my partner and said, “I was at the library the other night and I can never get over how ‘qu13t’ it is there”. Is that bad? What about the word ‘slow’, does it have the same effect? “It sure is slow tonight”.

What does the research say?

Putting my nerd hat on, I decided to do a search and see if anyone has been studying this phenomenon…and they have!

In 2009, “The Q word” written by David Warriner, was published in The BMJ but unfortunately you need a subscription to read the full article.

Hell hath no fury like a nurse having heard “My, isn’t it qu13t today,” usually by a doctor. According to healthcare folklore, its incantation will provoke the “shift from hell.”

“The Q Word” BMJ Clinical Research 338(jun03 2) · June 2009 with 33 Reads 
DOI: 10.1136/bmj.b1286

Here is another study published in 2010. “The Q**** Study – basic randomised evaluation of attendance at a children’s emergency department”. Published in BMJ Journals – Emergency Medicine Journal.

Method:  We measured attendance during three time periods per day for the study duration (A – 00:00 to 07:59; B – 08:00 to 15:59; C – 16:00 to 23:59). At the beginning of each time period a randomised envelope was opened that contained either the word “Q****”, “Busy” or was blank, this prompted the doctor and nurse in charge to utter a sentence containing the word from the envelope, which was also displayed for the rest of the 8 h.

Johnson G
The Q**** Study – basic randomised evaluation of attendance at a children’s emergency department
Emergency Medicine Journal 2010;27:A11.

I FOUND ONE! Here is a link to “Does the word ‘qu13t’ really make things busier”? The aim of their study was to investigate whether the use of the word ‘qu13t’ by the on-call team increases the subsequent workload.

Who are the culprits who say the word the most?

  • From poking around on Google, I found that doctors seem to be high on the list of users of the word. I wonder if they daring fate?
  • Nurses are rarely heard uttering the word and most of the time they are giving someone a scolding for speaking it out loud.
  • Students, of all kinds can’t help but try the word out…at least once. What is being taught in those classes!

So do you think the word you never say in healthcare is real or is it a myth?

This is your space. Leave your comments below and share your experiences and stories. Also, if you know the origins of where this started, I’d love to learn more. Even if it’s just your best guess.

I for one am a true believer. I used to work as a hospice nurse and one night a friend of a rather eccentric patient who had just passed away, stopped by the nurses station to bid us a good night. As she turned to leave, she commented on how peaceful and qu13t it was there. Not more than 15 minutes after she left ‘it’ hit the fan and we were smokin’ busy. It’s amazing how a 10 bed unit could feel like 20 and how fast time could fly but go nowhere. The morning team even got the after-math of the Q word, by getting numerous new admissions.

OMG…I just found an article on a nurse who went missing after accidentally using the Q word on her shift.

So in closing, just don’t say the word we never say in healthcare. Not even as a joke. You may have noticed that I changed it throughout this post. I’m not taking any chances.

More to come….as I continue to track down where this all started.


The word you never say in healthcare.

The Word You Never Say In Healthcare

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