Etymology Usage

Healthy choices

Q: A friend has a soup container with a label that reads “fresh healthy delicious.” Is “healthy” correct? I realize it’s supposed to mean you’ll be healthy if you eat the soup, but doesn’t it actually mean the soup is healthy?

A: We have to disagree here. Not many people reading that label would think the soup itself was enjoying robust health.

We’ve written before on our blog about “healthful” and “healthy.” But that was more than five years ago, so we’ll revisit the subject.

In traditional usage during much of the 20th century, “healthy” people led “healthful” lives—that is, they ate “healthful” foods and did “healthful” things.

So a person was “healthy” if the vegetables he ate and the exercises he sweated over were “healthful.” That’s how a lot of early- to mid-20th-century usage guides explained the difference.

But language authorities no longer insist on this distinction. As we said back in 2006, “It’s become almost universal for people to refer to ‘healthy food,’ even though a literal-minded person might imagine a stalk of broccoli lifting weights!”

Today, dictionaries regard this use of “healthy” as correct, standard English. So it’s not a mistake to refer to a healthful thing as “healthy.”

As it turns out, history is on the side of this broader interpretation. For hundreds of years, “healthy” was freely used to mean good for you, and nobody minded until a distinction was drawn in the late 19th century.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) has an interesting usage note on the subject (we’ll add paragraph breaks):

“Some people insist on maintaining a distinction between the words healthy and healthful. In this view, healthful means ‘conducive to good health’ and is applied to things that promote health, while healthy means ‘possessing good health,’ and is applied solely to people and other organisms. Accordingly, healthy people have healthful habits.

“However, healthy has been used to mean ‘healthful’ since the 1500s, as in this example from John Locke’s Some Thoughts Concerning Education: ‘Gardening … and working in wood, are fit and healthy recreations for a man of study or business.’

“In fact, the word healthy is far more common than healthful when modifying words like diet, exercise, and foods, and healthy may strike many readers as more natural in many contexts. Certainly, both healthy and healthful must be considered standard in describing that which promotes health.”

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) agrees, defining “healthy” as both “enjoying health” and “conducive to health.” M-W quotes General George S. Patton: “walk three miles every day … a beastly bore, but healthy.”

Finally, the Oxford English Dictionary has citations going back to the 16th century in which “healthy” is used to mean “possessing or enjoying good health” as well as “conducive to or promoting health.”

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