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CONTEXTUALLY YOURS #74 (article first published : 2006-09-21)

Well, I never!

That was an expression my parents used to use, implying “I’ve never heard of such a thing!” It serves to introduce this column, which is about the word “well”.

We use this word often and in many ways, but it has recently come into prominence because of its use by “alternative health professionals” who advertise “wellness clinics”. One of these mountebanks has now produced the pseudo-word “wellth”, to describe the benefit you can expect from his services.

He obviously had the word “wealth” at the back of his mind, and he wasn’t far from getting it right – the word “weal” (now described in Chambers as “literary or archaic”) meant the state of being well or prosperous. “Weal” survives now in the expression “the common weal”, meaning roughly the prosperity of the country as a whole.

But “weal” and “well” have different derivations. Both come from Old English (Anglo-Saxon) words. “Weal” is a noun, and is derived from “wela, weola”, meaning “wealth” or “bliss”. (The idea of prosperity is already there, along with happiness: obviously the idea that money doesn’t bring happiness hadn’t occurred to anybody yet.)

“Well” is an adjective, as in “He’s not a well man”, or an adverb, as in “He reads well”. It derives from the almost identical Old English word “wel”, which is itself related to the word “wyllan”, to wish or be willing.

Nowadays it usually means “in good health”, hence the “wellness” clinics mentioned above. It’s easy to turn an adjective into a noun by adding “-ness” – Jonathan Swift used the word “bigness” to mean “size” – and we often talk of silliness, tallness and so on. But there’s something insufferably cute about “wellness”, and “wellth” is simply illiterate.

The word “health” is interesting in itself. It comes directly from Old English “haelth”, which is itself connected to the OE “hal”, meaning “whole”. The connection with “heal” too is obvious. But there is another derivation of “hal” which survives in one of our somewhat hackneyed expressions, “hale and hearty”, where it has the same meaning it has had for a thousand years. I like that.

Still on the subject of health, my Medical Aid Association has just produced, at huge expense, a booklet full of coloured pictures and a lot of sage advice about how to stay healthy without their assistance, perhaps because they provide so little. It contains this little jewel: “A study conducted with monkeys found that a diet high in trans fats lead to weight gain around the waist, even when their overall calorie intake were,/i> reduced.” The first error (“lead” should be “led”) reflects an inability to distinguish between two like-sounding words. The second is probably a simple illiteracy – the monkeys were still ingesting many calories, so let’s use a plural verb. It’s possible that there is an Afrikaans influence here, since Afrikaans makes no distinction between singular and plural verbs. The English “He is” and “They are” translate into the Afrikaans “Hy is” and “Hulle is”. But my money’s on illiteracy.

Two little gems from the radio news to end with:

“Emergency crews are facing a magnitude of problems…” and “The aircraft used in the coup attempt was impounded and fortified to the state.”

Oh, well.

Contextually Yours, Ulysses Online.




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