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.

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Comments from our users:

Friday April 16th 2010, 8:50 AM
Comment by: paul D. (n myrtle beach, SC)
Mr. Zimmer
I am a fan of your writing and your great knowledge of the English language, and that was WELL done.
Friday April 16th 2010, 9:07 AM
Comment by: Barbara S. (Taos, NM)
If you're going to feature a word like this, please include the pronunciation so we can start dotting our speech with it. Or have I just not found that part?

Thanks! schmuh-GEDJ-ee?

[If you click through from the Word of the Day to the word map in the VT, you can hear the pronunciation: it's shmuh-GAY-gee, roughly. —Ed.]
Friday April 16th 2010, 9:07 AM
Comment by: Beth L. (Morristown, NJ)
I use wellness all the time. In many people's mind, health means absence of illness. That does not necessarily mean that one is truly well! I think the word is not accepted so easily by those who think in terms of health being the absence of illness.
Friday April 16th 2010, 9:28 AM
Comment by: katharine W. (bethany, CT)
Mental health professionals often discuss the services provided to the population deemed "the worried well," which has always given me an image of something out of a folk tale for neurotics about an anxiety-ridden wishing well.
Friday April 16th 2010, 9:33 AM
Comment by: Stan Carey (Galway Ireland)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
I don't think it sounds awkward — it mirrors illness quite neatly — but I'm not inclined to use it much either. It smacks slightly of health spa jargon, the kind of word that's made gospel in places that exist to remind us that water is healthy and cabbages are holistic. But context is everything, and I'm sure I've used it without these associations occurring to me.
Friday April 16th 2010, 10:01 AM
Comment by: Greenporter (Greenport, NY)
I live in an area where many older people also have homes. The word wellness is a common word here. It is used to promote a living style that includes proper diet, exercise and mental attitude.Therefore, I have never given any thought to the word's oddity.
Friday April 16th 2010, 12:47 PM
Comment by: David D.
Perhaps I live in an odd community, but I think that the "wellness" usage has splashed down here so much that it seems quite a normal thing. If I do try to define such conditions as illness or sickness, or absence of wellness or lacking of care or attention to various efforts to avoid illness or medical treatment by practicing wellness as a preventative, well, then the word seems slightly forced. Yet hardly a matter to be concerned about. There are so many words and issues being bandied about carelessly. Ah, but I do not want to go all political here.
Saturday April 17th 2010, 9:35 AM
Comment by: Mattie D.
I am nearly 80 and do not think I have ever used the word, but undestand and approve its use. For me it embodies a concept which is not as atheletic as healthy and can be used as a noun more easily.
Saturday April 17th 2010, 10:18 AM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Two years ago I had a consulting job with a group of healthcare professionals, helping them settle on the wording of the definitions of key terms that were to become part of legislation. I argued that "wellness" had a jargony ring to it and should be unpacked or replaced by other more mainstream language. None of them agreed with this, and they were nearly unanimous in wanting to keep wellness in the definition of some terms. The mammoth healthcare bill that was recently passed in Congress has nearly a hundred instances of "wellness" -- so I expect it's here to stay, and that it will quickly become unremarkable to those who find it so now.
Sunday April 18th 2010, 7:52 AM
Comment by: Dolores S. (Hondo, NM)
Well, I don't know.
Sunday April 18th 2010, 10:20 AM
Comment by: Si C. (Newport Beach, CA)
It's absolutely accepted and acceptable. There's no other word in use out there to readily describe the concept. A physician friend of mine is the Chief of Wellness at a major hospital in our county. It's an important position to which he is extremely dedicated.
Wednesday April 21st 2010, 5:47 AM
Comment by: chris P. (tallai Australia)
It strikes me as a comfort word which makes me suspicious.However I would consider visiting The Wellness Restaurant.When asked about our state of health in Australia the simple answer is "Good". In fact "good" seems to be the answer to most questions.
PS We do have wells.
Wednesday April 21st 2010, 9:55 AM
Comment by: Janice R. (Beavercreek, OH)
I've noticed that "wellness" is a term often used by folks who push supplements and remedies that are outside FDA regulation. Since they cannot definitively prove the value of their products, they tie them to discussions of good nutrition and and imply that they contribute to a person's "wellness."

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