Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

Here's to Your Wellness

For this Sunday's "Health and Wellness" issue of The New York Times Magazine, I've contributed an "On Language" column looking at how we all started talking about wellness (as opposed to health) in the first place. The word has had an odd trajectory: from an occasional antonym of illness dating back to the 17th century, to an uneasy label for preventive and holistic approaches to health in the '70s and '80s, to an established element of our linguistic landscape in the '90s and beyond.

When the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary published their entry for wellness in the first edition of 1923, wellness was a marginal item in the lexicon at best. It's marked as a "nonce word": an ad-hoc formation, invented and reinvented over the years without settling into the language like its counterpart illness. Back in the 1650s, the word seemed peculiar to Dorothy Osborne, who asked her soon-to-be-husband Sir William Temple about "the new phrases of the town" (presumably London), "Pray what is meant by wellness and unwellness?"

Well into the 20th century, wellness would continue to elicit head-scratching. As I describe in the column, even the pioneers of the "wellness movement" in the late 1970s and 1980s had some trouble with the term. Later, as the word spread via employer-based "wellness programs" in the '90s, there continued to be some resistance within the health care community. Edith Schwager, author of Medical English Usage and Abusage, expressed her distaste for the word in a 1992 installment of her "Dear Edie" column in the American Medical Writers Association (AMWA) Journal. "The word wellness seems to me a little pretentious, and so I never use it," she wrote. "However, it's already an L.C. [lost cause], I fear, since I know of at least two newsletters whose title incorporates that word."

Why was there so much ambivalence about wellness before its gradual acceptance? I think it might have something to do with the unusual status of the word well, which has led a double life as an adjective and an adverb since Old English (leaving aside the etymologically unrelated senses of well as a noun and a verb). As an adjective, well is typically restricted to the meaning of "healthy" in contemporary English. But that wasn't always the case. In the broader sense of "satisfactory," it dates back to the 14th century, surviving in such expressions as "all is well" (in the OED from 1381) and "all's well that ends well" (from 1562, some 40 years before Shakespeare's play of that name). The latter is grammatically intriguing in that it uses well both as a predicate adjective ("all's well") and as an adverbial form of good ("ends well").

In its "healthy" sense, the adjective well continues to be most comfortable as a predicate ("I haven't been well"), appearing much more sporadically before nouns. One such example as a noun modifier is Ben Franklin's "Poor Richard" aphorism, "Poor Dick eats like a well man, and drinks like a sick." "Well-baby clinics" date to the early 20th century and may have helped along the extension of well as a more general adjective of health in the medical profession. Such usage could have laid the groundwork for Halbert L. Dunn's introduction of the modern "wellness" concept in the late '50s, and perhaps also encouraged holistic health advocates of the '70s and '80s to use terms like "well medicine" to describe their new approaches to well-being.

How do you feel about wellness? Does it still carry a trace of awkwardness to it, or is it well-ensconced in your vocabulary? Let us know in the comments below!

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Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.