Whole and wholesome: a Christmassy etymology
Singing carols, building snowmen and gingerbread houses, exchanging presents, pulling crackers, snuggling up to the fire with a hot chocolate: the Christmas holiday is a time for good, wholesome fun, although we won’t tell anyone if you smuggle a little extra brandy into your eggnog. But, as it turns out, the words wholesome and holiday have a much deeper connection than just Jolly Old Saint Nick.
Good for the body, good for the soul
Wholesome characterizes something that promotes one’s moral well-being. And it’s in this sense that the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first documents wholesome in the Ormulum, a twelfth-century religious text composed by a monk named Orm. Thanks to a special spelling system he used, Orm’s manuscript gives linguists important clues into the development of English. Orm, for instance, wrote wholesome as halsumm, documenting a significant vowel change in the language.
In Middle English, wholesome also could also refer to something good for one’s physical well-being, a meaning we still see in expressions like wholesome foods. Several centuries later, Shakespeare took advantage of the multiple meanings of wholesome to play with the relationship between one’s physical and spiritual health. Wholesome appears over 30 times in his works – seven in Hamlet alone. In the play, the moody and morbid prince uses wholesome to mean ‘free of disease or corruption’, rankling the guilty consciences of his murderous mother and uncle.
The whole story
The spelling of Orm’s halsumm and the meaning of Shakespeare’s wholesome point us to the deeper origins of the word. As a word, wholesome joins the adjective whole with the once-productive suffix -some: wholesome ‘causes something to be whole’. And whole – from the Old English hál, among other forms – was all about ‘being in one piece’, literally and metaphorically. Hál could mean ‘safe’ and ‘unharmed’, hence ‘in good condition’, body, mind, or spirit. The OED notes that, in context, the Old English hál especially signified something or someone ‘free or recovered from injury’. (Wholesome preserves this older, ‘well-being’ notion of whole, which English has otherwise largely lost.) But the Old English hál could also mean ‘undivided’, and therefore ‘entire’, ‘complete’, or ‘all’. It’s this meaning of whole that prevails today, from whole numbers and on the whole to the whole enchilada to the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Underlying wholeness, then, and uniting the two, primary Old English meanings of whole, is a more basic idea of ‘intactness’.
As for the sound and shape of hál, the vowel started shifting in late Middle English (e.g., stán became stone) and by the 15th century, according to the OED, English was using the spelling with wh- for words beginning with h followed by an o-sound, including whole. Now, Old English rendered wh– as hw, but it’s the same Ormulum, in fact, that the modern spelling of wh was in regular use, the dictionary also observes.
Today, the word whole may be off its historical ‘health’ kick, so to speak, but it still shows up in the etymological gym. For one, the word health literally means ‘the condition of being whole’, slapping the -th noun-making suffix (cf. true/truth, deep/depth) on an Old English form of hál. For another, hale, “strong and robust,” comes from a northern English dialect form of the Old English hál. And we might think of heal, from a related Old English verb hǽlan, as ‘making something or someone whole again’. Hail, as in Hail, Caesar! or Hail Mary, began as a salutation ‘Be whole!’ à la ‘I hope you are well!’ This hail – used on the 16th-century seas to call to other ships, later on the streets for taxis – derives from the Old Norse heill, cousin to English’s whole and German’s heil. Indeed, this whole lot of words, from heil to whole, share an ancient root in the Germanic language family.
An un-holey holy?
For Christians, Christmas isn’t just an occasion for a bit of cheer. It’s also a holiday, that is, a holy day. And holy, from the Old English, hálig, is also related to the word whole. The exact meaning, and historical development, of holy before Christianity presents difficulties, though etymologists know holy ultimately goes back to the same Germanic root as whole. Some scholars think holy originally pointed to some thing, or being, that ‘must be preserved whole or intact’, and so ‘inviolable’, ‘never to be dishonored’, and ‘sacred’. Others have tried to connect holy to older, Germanic meanings of health referring to ‘good luck’ or ‘good omens’.
Christmas, for so many its celebrants, may be a wholesome holiday – in word and observance. But we shouldn’t forget the wisdom of another Shakespearean character, Sir Toby Belch, who tells the spoilsport Malvolio in that tinsel-titled Twelfth Night: “Dost thou think because thou art virtuous there shall be no more cakes and ale?”