Word & Song by Anthony Esolen
Word of the Week

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Word of the Week

My sister is one of the smartest, sanest, and most experienced doctors you’ll ever meet. She’s devoted her life to doing what our Word of the Week names: to heal. How did that desire first awaken in her heart? I suppose that it is natural to man. We don’t like to see things broken, hurt, falling apart. If you see a door coming loose from its hinges, unless you’re a mischievous boy — which is another story and another word — you want to fix it. If you see a dog running loose with its leash trailing behind, you want to catch him so he doesn’t get in trouble. If your neighbor in the train compartment is hacking away, you offer him some cough drops. And if you saw me when I was a teenager, in the hospital in Philadelphia, with the extremely rare condition I have lived with all my life, you might say, “Holy cow, what happened to your leg?” But she says that my condition helped her decide to become a doctor, and if that’s so, it’s been a blessing indeed.

“Jesus Heals a Leper,” Alexandre Bida. Public Domain.

Jesus traveled about the land, healing. Now, it’s the same Jesus who says that we shouldn’t fear those who can kill the body, but rather him who can kill the soul, and sure enough, it wasn’t just a withered hand, or a blind eye, or a deaf ear that he healed, or even a little girl lying asleep in death. He brought the healing balm of the truth, mingled with mercy: never compromising on what was true, but always using the truth to bring healing and real freedom to us poor cripples in bondage, for “the truth shall set you free.” What must we have looked like, in his eyes? Here’s an old man who can’t open his hand anymore, because it’s clutching a coin. Here’s a young man whose heart is inflamed with pride, and you can see the burning in his cheeks. Here’s an old woman whose eyes are fixed sideways, because she’s always glaring at her neighbors, askance. Here’s a young woman who takes ten minutes to sashay across a room, because she’s light-headed with vanity. Yes, we’re all like that, a bunch of half-people, and he came with the truth to make us whole.

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Whole, now — that word with the w in it can’t be related to heal, can it? You bet it can. The old adjective is preserved in the word hale, which Chaucer and everybody else around London in 1400 would have pronounced hall-e. But the vowels shifted, so that by Shakespeare’s time, hole meaning healthy was pronounced just like the totally unrelated hole in the ground, so writers and printers stuck the w in front to distinguish the two. The w- had already gone silent in who, whose, and whom, so people would naturally have left it silent in whole.

The idea, after all, is that you are healthy if you are whole, entire, undivided. The idea persists in the word wholesome: for food that keeps you whole, or for books and habits and pastimes that build you up rather than take a meat cleaver to your body or your soul. For whole doesn’t just mean all. It means that everything is there that needs to be there, in union, as one. And yes, it is also related to the word holy. It’s why, too, that very bad man I won’t name here committed blasphemy every time he made somebody shout “Heil!” as his salute. It was as if he had the healing power of Christ, the Heiland, the Savior. But you could, in Old English and Middle English, use the word hal as a salute: Wes hal! Which meant, “Be hale!” — that is, in French, salut! Or back in English, “Here’s to your health!” But wes hal is in our language still: it’s wassail!

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One more little quirk about heal: the verb comes from the adjective. In early Germanic — before Old English — you could attach to a noun or an adjective a suffix pronounced -yahn, to make a causative verb out of it. The little y sound, which you pronounce at the top of your mouth (try it), raised the vowel in the preceding syllable or moved it to the front. So we ended up with a lot of funny doublets: you tell a tale, you gild something with gold, you fill something full, you deem a doom (a judgment), and you heal someone by making him hale — whole.

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Word & Song is an online magazine devoted to reclaiming the good, the beautiful, and the true. We publish six essays each week, on words, classic hymns, poems, films, and popular songs. Paid subscribers also receive audio-enhanced posts, a weekly podcast (alternately Poetry Aloud or Anthony Esolen Speaks), access to our full archive of over 700 essays.

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Word & Song by Anthony Esolen
Word of the Week
Stop by on Mondays to hear Tony discuss the word of the week, with etymologies, ad libs .. and pizzazz.
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