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Word roots and routes: whole

© ThinkstockNext in a series of posts exploring some of the ‘roots’ and ‘routes’ of English vocabulary.

The word whole has very deep roots, which can be traced back beyond the beginnings of English, and it has close cognates in other modern Germanic languages.

The underlying meaning of whole is ‘undamaged’, and therefore complete or entire. Some common words derived from whole include wholefood, wholehearted, wholemeal, wholesale, wholesome and wholly.

The letter w in the spelling is a 15th-century addition which disguises the close relationship between whole and a number of other words.

Health is from the same origin as whole, and etymologically it means ‘undamaged’ in the sense of uninjured, or not suffering from any illness. To heal is literally to ‘make whole’ again, and in the expression hale and hearty, the word hale also means healthy.

Holy is, originally, whole in the sense of ‘inviolable, free from imperfection’. Hallow is a variant of holy, and Halloween is the eve of All Saints’ Day, which is also sometimes called All Hallows. A holiday was originally a ‘holy day’, i.e. a religious festival.

The meanings of the verb hail ‘to shout to someone as a way of attracting their attention’ and ‘to say publicly how good or important someone or something is’ arose from the custom of greeting someone by wishing them good health; as well as ‘The court’s ruling was hailed as a victory for freedom’, we can say ‘The court’s ruling was greeted as a victory for freedom’. (Hail in this sense and hail meaning ‘frozen rain’ are homonyms, i.e. they have the same spelling and pronunciation, but only by coincidence; they have different meanings and different origins.)

English also has quite a few words based on hólos, the Greek equivalent of whole. These tend to be scientific and not used in everyday language, but hologram (or holograph) and holistic are widely familiar, and so is holocaust, which is etymologically a ‘whole burning’ – the second element ‘caust’ also appears in the word caustic.

If someone thinks you look tired, overworked and in need of a rest, they sometimes say, ‘You look as if you need a holiday.’ So now, next time someone says this to you, you’ll be aware of the connection they are inadvertently making between holiday and health.

Next in this series: water

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Jonathan Marks

1 Comment

  • No one seems to have taken the Welsh word “hollol” into account. Not denying the Germanic root but the Welsh seems equally convincing to me.

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