As a Chiropractor I am interested in the health of my patients and the community at large. We say and use this word “health” a lot; but do we truly understand its meaning and application? Etymology is the study of word origin and the historical development of its meaning. What is the etymological meaning of the word “health?" I think it is important to understand the meaning of words so we can better apply them to our life. As B.J. Palmer once put it: “Words are vehicles of thought; thought is the result of ideas.” So if our ideas, thoughts, and words don’t match up, we could be driving the wrong vehicle of thought, going in the wrong direction, and end up at the wrong destination. Very often we say what we don’t mean and mean what we don’t say. This does not necessarily represent a lack of education, but merely a miscommunication in our knowledge. So let’s break down this word “health” to help build a more meaningful application of it.
Health originates from the combination of Old English and Germanic words. The Old English word hælþ means “wholeness, a being whole, sound or well.” The Germanic word hailitho means “whole, uninjured, of good omen.” These words combined about 1000 years ago in Middle English to form what we know today to be the word health and its derivatives.
A common thread in the origin of the word health is the word ‘whole.’ Whole means a complete entity; singular in nature. Health then is the complete entity of being well. This might seem very far off from what the majority of us think health means today. To most, health is just the absence of disease. This application of the word makes disease the entity. A diseased ‘what’ though? A diseased heart? A diseased mental attitude? A diseased environment? When you make disease your foundation, variables result. If there are a thousand different ‘diseases’ with a hundred thousand different symptom presentations: how can disease be the single entity? This is why Chiropractic takes a holistic approach and makes well-being the measuring stick for health, not disease.
The World Health Organization (WHO) defined health in 1946 as "a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity." This definition got a lot of criticism then and still does today for its statement that health is more than the absence of disease. The criticism usually comes from those who have a more materialistic, mechanistic idea of health and how the world runs. This school of thought has run rampant in allopathic medicine. To them, disease is the entity that defines health. Health is the absence of disease.
Over 40 years before the World Health Organization’s definition, D.D. Palmer made this observation: “Health is that condition of the body in which all the functions are performed in a normal degree...The science of Chiropractic has modified our views concerning life, death, health and disease. We no longer believe that disease is an entity, something foreign to the body, which may enter from without, and with which we have to grasp, struggle, fight and conquer, or submit and succumb to its ravages. Disease is a disturbed condition, not a thing of enmity.”
Holistic wellness takes the complete opposite approach and sticks truer to the definition of health. Health is the entity and disease is the absence of health. Dr. Rob Sinnott described this antipodal philosophy perfectly: “Chiropractically you must think health first, not disease. Medically you ‘get’ a disease. Chiropractically you ‘lose’ health.” Chiropractic turns things right side up again. Start with health in mind, and you will end with health in action.