In Search of Health

Where does Health come from?

Of course you think you know the answer. Health comes from eating well, no smoking, plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, regular exercise and all the rest of it. But I am not talking here about that aspect of health.

Instead, I am looking at where the word came from.

It is unlike words for the same concept in other, neighbouring languages, like French salut, Welsh iechyd or even German Gesundheit. So where did it come from?

If we go back 500 years or so, we find health frequently expressed as ‘heyle‘ or heil/ hail. Let’s take a look at an example from The Wars of Alexander, a Middle English romance written in about 1500:

he was so wele in happe and in heyle

[He was so well, happy and healthy]

Now let’s go even further back, to Old English, the language as it would have been spoken from the 9th to the 11th centuries, from the time of King Alfred the Great (and before!) to around the Norman Invasion.

In Old English, the word was hǣlþ, with the final letter pronounced like the ‘th’ that we use today. It’s thought that the word derived from Proto-Germanic, the ancestor of our language that also gave rise to other Germanic languages, such as Dutch, Swedish and German. In Proto-Germanic, the word has been proposed as *hailitho, which would have meant ‘whole, uninjured’. This can be further traced back to Proto-Indo-European, the precursor to most of the languages that arose in Europe. In that early language the root is proposed as *kailo, where the meaning is the same, but also ‘bearing good fortune/ of good omen’.

The word is also cognate with or related to other words in English: hale and hallow, but also holy. So our forebears regarded ‘holy’ as part of being ‘whole’, part of well-being. Or perhaps the association even started the other way: health is something sacred and holy.


Millie Slavidou, author of the Lucy Evans Instaexplorer adventure series for preteens, featuring little snippets of language, and Sparky, a first chapter book for early readers.
You can discover more about Millie on the Mom’s Favorite Reads website here:

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