The Grammarphobia Blog

The holistic truth

Q: I’m having an argument with spell-check over “holistic.” I’d like to spell it with a “w,” as in “whole,” but my computer is unhappy and wants to spell it like “holy.” Seriously, why do we spell “whole” with a “w,” but “holistic” without one?

A: The adjective “holistic,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is relatively new, a creation of the 1920s, but its “w”-less spelling has older origins.

The adjective was formed from the noun “holism,” a combination of the Greek holos (“whole”) plus the English suffix “ism.”

The Greek root holos probably accounts for the absence of the “w” in “holism” and “holistic.” Although the word “whole” (spelled various ways) dates back to Anglo-Saxon days, the “wh” spelling didn’t appear in English until the 15th century.

The noun “holism,” the OED says, was coined by Jan Christiaan Smuts, a South African general, politician, and philosopher, “to designate the tendency in nature to produce wholes (i.e. bodies or organisms) from the ordered grouping of unit structures.”

Here’s a quotation, using both the noun and the adjective, from Smuts’s book Holism and Evolution (1926): “The whole-making, holistic tendency, or Holism, operating in and through particular wholes, is seen at all stages of existence.”

And here’s a slightly later quotation, from The British Weekly (1927): “The real entities of the material world must, like organisms, be creative, self-transcending, functional. They must be Holistic unities.”

But perhaps this 1959 use of the noun from the Times of London better reflects modern usage:

“Holism has at last penetrated departments of nutrition, and a new school of nutrition has arisen which realizes that the integration of nutrition, health and disease is a problem that must be attacked on a wide front.”

Is there a connection between “whole” and “holy”? Well, yes, if we go back far enough.

Both came into English from Old Teutonic sources, but they’re distantly related to one another (as well as to  “hale,” “health,” “heal,” and the Greek holos) through an ancient Indo-European ancestor reconstructed as kailo or qoilos, meaning whole, uninjured, or of good omen.

In discussing the origin of “holy,” the OED says “the primitive pre-Christian meaning is uncertain,” but “it is with some probability assumed to have been ‘inviolate, inviolable, that must be preserved whole or intact, that cannot be injured with impunity.’ ”

This sense was preserved in Old Norse, the OED adds, “hence the adj. would naturally be applied to the gods, and all things specially pertaining to them.”

Thus a word for wholeness made its way into English as meaning “held in religious regard or veneration, kept reverently sacred from human profanation or defilement.”

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