Q&A: Holistic vs wholistic

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we’re taking a holistic approach…

Q: Hi AWC. I’ve been wondering about holistic medicine lately.

A: Is it about how “aloe vera” sounds like a greeting from a British TV show?

Q: No, I’ve been thinking about how it involves the whole body and mind…and yet it’s spelt “holistic” and not “wholistic”…

A: Ah. Okay.

Q: Have I been led up the naturo path this whole time?

A: No. Your bubble hasn't been burst by an acupuncture needle either. The term “holistic medicine” is often used interchangeably with “alternative medicine” or “complementary therapies” and so on. And spelling it this way is correct.

Q: So is the “h” just for medical contexts then? Because I’ve seen chefs taking a “wholistic” approach to preparing food, for example. Is THAT when I use the “w” spelling?

A: Never trust a skinny chef or any chef’s spelling. Look, unroll your yoga mat and get comfy. Let’s breeeeeeathe and downward dog our way back to the start.

Q: Oh okay. How many centuries ago?

A: Not quite one. 1926 in fact.

Q: What happened in 1926?

A: According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary (who seem to be the authority on this one), this was when a South African named Jan Smuts coined the term “holism” – meaning “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts”.

Q: Not much of a mathematician then…

A: Perhaps not. Essentially, he didn’t like the Western idea of cluttering things by breaking them down into so many parts that you “couldn’t see the forest for the trees”.

Q: Actually, my uncle Toby used to be a lumberjack. He had that exact problem! Although he was blind…

A: Um okay.

Q: I never did feel safe when he got his chainsaw out…

A: Anyway, Jan Smuts saw “holism” as stepping back and considering the “whole” of something – from society to ecology and of course medicine. It had nothing to do with “holes”, despite the spelling.

Q: So the “holism” movement related to the “whole”? Not happy, Jan…

A: Yeah, he didn’t do the modern world any favours by dropping the “w”.

Q: So, wait, is EVERY definition spelt “holistic” then?

A: Yes, we recommend any time the word is used that you take a “holistic” approach and avoid using “wholistic” altogether – even though it has been hovering around since the 1940s. While many dictionaries will recognise “wholistic” as a variant spelling, it has always been the poor cousin.

Q: Oh, that reminds me of my uncle’s poor cousin Albert who was also a lumberjack. He was deaf and met a tragic end.

A: How?

Q: A tree fell in the forest, but there was no one around to hear it.

A: Oh dear.

Q: Anyway, can we just get back to why someone would call something “holism” when it’s clearly about the “whole”?

A: Greek is why. You see, “holos” is Greek for “whole” and other words like “holocaust” (burnt whole) or hologram (whole, 3D picture) come from the same place.

Q: So, anytime I see someone write about a “wholistic” approach, it’s wrong?

A: Well, perhaps just think of it as less effective – much like putting herbs on your toes to cure a toothache. It just makes sense to use the heavily favoured “holistic” instead.

Q: Okay, thanks for the chat – I’d better go. I’m late for my aromatherapy session.

A: Smell you later!

If you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore, email it to us today!

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