Wellness rising

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I've been noticing a lot of wellness around recently. The word, that is — like Manlu Liu, "Penn announces new position of Chief Wellness Officer to centralize and improve resources", The Daily Pennsylvanian 4/24/2018:

Penn will institute the position of a chief wellness officer, Penn President Amy Gutmann announced in an email to all Penn undergraduate students on April 24.

According to the email, the chief wellness officer will oversee a new department at Penn called "Student Wellness Services" that will include Counseling and Psychological Services, the Student Health Service, and the Office of Alcohol and Other Drug Program Initiatives.

And not just at my university.  A search for wellness at Google News returns 20 articles from within the past 24 hours, ranging from "High-rise builder hopes wellness sells at downtown Dallas luxury condo" to "How Is Wellness Guru Prince Harry Preparing for the Royal Wedding?", "From vegan gummies to cannabis teas, marijuana edibles are becoming the newest product in the 'wellness' market" and "Cardiac Care Group A Fox 4 Wellness Expert".

Has wellness always been so thick on the ground? The OED has citations going back to 1654,  but the Google Ngram tool suggests a usage trend starting in 1970 or so:

(The multiplication by 10000 turns the uninterpretable percentages on the vertical axis into frequencies per million.)

There's a similar pattern in the MEDLINE dataset of biomedical abstracts, revealed by my homegrown counting script:

And we can see a similar trend via date-limited search in the New York Times (number of stories containing the word "wellness" per decade):

1970s 7
1980s 106
1990s 277
2000s 950
2010s 2626

[ 2010s value is extrapolated from 2189 1/1/2010 to 5/1/2018]


My impression is that "health" has become too much about negatively-associated things like doctors, hospitals, insurance companies, and giant pharmaceutical firms — and it was never rigorously positive enough anyhow, since you can have good health or bad health. There's no such thing as bad wellness.

Update — LION turns up an example of Middle English wellness, listed as "Anon., 1100-1400":

1  Sein Benet was ibore in þe lond of Nuirsie
2  To Rome he was wel  ong ysend [ ] to lerni of clergie
3  His norise he hadde þer wiþ him þat him wel nesse weste
4  Fram hure he stal wel stilleliche a day þat he[o] it nuste
5  And bileuede is scole & eke hure & þat him were isibbe
6  And wende into wildernesse in penance forto libbe

So the term has been around as long as English has, just waiting for its moment.

Update #1a — Apparently this example is invalid — David Denison, who should know, suggests that "nesse" here is actually neshe "Softly; gently; compassionately", and "well" is a degree adverb rather than the head of a nominalization. But a search in EEBO turns up a passage in a 1573 document A briefe exposition of such chapters of the olde testament as vsually are redde in the church at common praier on the Sondayes set forth for the better helpe and instruction of the vnlearned. By Thomas Cooper Bishop of Lincolne:

49 Beholde, the sinnes of thy sister Sodoma were these: Pride, fulnesse of meate, and aboundance of  welnesse, these things had she and her daughters: besides that they streng|thed not the hand of the poore and néedie.

So not Middle English, but certainly Early Modern English.

Update #2 — and of course Ben Zimmer was there first: "Wellness", NYT 4/16/2010:

“Wellness,” intoned Dan Rather in November 1979, introducing a “60 Minutes” segment on a new health movement known by that name. “There’s a word you don’t hear every day.”

More than three decades later, wellness is, in fact, a word that Americans might hear every day, or close to it. You can sign up for your company’s employee-wellness program, relax in a wellness spa treatment or even plan some “wellness tourism” for your next vacation. Your cat or dog can get in on the action, too, since the W-word has been pressed into service as a brand of all-natural pet food.

Wellness is here to stay, despite misgivings over the years that it isn’t such a well-formed word. How did it take over, and whatever happened to good old health?

Thanks to Ben's discussion, we can trace the positive influence of the word to Halbert Dunn's 1959 article "High-Level Wellness for Man and Society", and his 1961 book High-Level Wellness.


  1. Edwin said,

    May 2, 2018 @ 4:24 am

    I've not seen it much in English, but in German Wellness seems to be a commonly used loanword referring to things like spas/massage.

  2. David Denison said,

    May 2, 2018 @ 5:10 am

    Hi Mark,

    I don't think your ME citation is of wellness. It's quoted in the Middle English Dictionary from the South English Legendary as an example of neshe 'Softly; gently; compassionately', with well a mere degree adverb.

  3. GH said,

    May 2, 2018 @ 5:10 am

    For those of us shaky in Middle English, there's an annotated version of these verses here: http://d.lib.rochester.edu/teams/text/whatley-saints-lives-in-middle-english-collections-life-of-st-benedict-in-the-south-english-legendary

    However, the line in question is given differently there, as "His norise he hadde ther with him, that him wel wuste." Presumably this means "His nurse he had there with him, who knew him well", and I don't see how "wellness" fits into a variant of that. Unless it means something like "a nurse who looked after his wellness"?

  4. Andreas Johansson said,

    May 2, 2018 @ 5:24 am

    As it happens, "wellness" is a word that has strongly negative associations for me, because I've seen it mostly, or at least most saliently, in ad copy from alternative medicine fraudsters.

  5. EE said,

    May 2, 2018 @ 5:34 am

    As Edwin says, the word is used frequently in German these days, but meaning spa, sauna, massages…

    It often shows up on "word that Germans think are English" lists (e.g. http://www.dw.com/en/13-words-germans-think-are-english/g-17619951 see number 10)

  6. Ray said,

    May 2, 2018 @ 5:38 am

    perhaps "wellness" sounds so good and comfy because it suggests connections with "wealthiness", as in "commonweal" or "commonwealth".

  7. AntC said,

    May 2, 2018 @ 5:43 am

    What @Andreas J said.

    As myl remarks, alt medicine associates "health" with 'what the medical system will do to you' — like over-prescribe opioids. Whereas they can make a lot more money out of you by peddling homeopathy, and sensory deprivation tanks.

    I guess those are not addictive. Also not effective. Hmm.

  8. mollymooly said,

    May 2, 2018 @ 5:43 am

    @Andreas Johansson: Checking various dictionary definitions, I think you might like Wikipedia's the best: it segregates the alternative-medicine sense.

  9. Saurs said,

    May 2, 2018 @ 5:48 am

    My impression is that "health" has become too much about negatively-associated things like doctors, hospitals, insurance companies, and giant pharmaceutical firms — and it was never rigorously positive enough anyhow, since you can have good health or bad health.

    I think that partly explains the present usage and quasi-euphemistic meaning, where mainstream medicine is viewed suspiciously and the novelty of more sophisticated pseudoscience is increasingly alluring to people lacking scientific literacy. "Wellness" feels like "healthfulness," an equally grating redundancy that reveals a somewhat paranoid ideology trading in fads and validating biases that feel good but also offer more certainty than messy reality is likely to provide.

    As for "health" having a stigma, your uni's "Student Wellness Services" includes a program for student health, so I don't know so much that "health" is verboten as its meaning is being narrowed down to, apparently, exclude mental health. That's a shame, given that mental illness is so frequently dismissed as a matter only of attitude or socialization rather than the expression or consequence of some physiological etiology. Ditto addiction. There's a lot to dislike about how some Whole Health programs are managed, but this is an obvious and unfortunate step backward.

  10. Peter Grubtal said,

    May 2, 2018 @ 6:12 am

    Living in Germany, I've got so used to wellness over the last few years, I'd forgotten how odd I used to find it when it first started being used over here.

    Also high on the list of Germany's innovative uses of the English language is "handy" as a noun, i.e. mobile or cellphone. I'd only ever known it as an adjective in England.

  11. Dan Romer said,

    May 2, 2018 @ 7:31 am

    I think the appeal is that wellness carries over to mental health without the stigma attached to that concern. When we say we feel well, we imply a psychological sense of health that is not suggested by feeling healthy. And the U wants that sense transmitted for sure.

  12. Peter Hobson said,

    May 2, 2018 @ 7:49 am

    I remember seeing "wellness [clinic, etc.]" for the first time in Germany in the early 1990s. It seemed to me like a faux-English version of "wellbeing". Now inexplicably working its way back to English when "wellbeing" seem perfectly good.

  13. Anschel Schaffer-Cohen said,

    May 2, 2018 @ 7:57 am

    I suspect that "wellness" has taken the place not of "health" but of "welfare", which used to have the same general connotation of well-being but is now seen in a much more restrictive and often pejorative sense.

  14. Jerry Friedman said,

    May 2, 2018 @ 8:32 am

    The first use of "wellness" I remember is from 1988, in the middle of its rise. By then the employee gym at Los Alamos National Laboratory was called the Wellness Center. I don't remember whether it offered anything for one's wellness beside exercise equipment. But "wellness" there doesn't seem to be a replacement for "health" (though I suppose there must be some gym somewhere called a Health Center or some such). It's health without medical care.

  15. Doug said,

    May 2, 2018 @ 8:48 am

    As I recall, when I was at Penn in the 1980s, the salad bar in the dining hall was labeled "Wellness Bar."

    Nowadays, "Health and Wellness" seems to be a common category in book stores, book catalogs and the like.

  16. Alexander said,

    May 2, 2018 @ 9:07 am

    My employer (large public university)'s "wellness" health insurance discount program because the "wellbeing" program last year. Start of a new trend?

  17. George Lane said,

    May 2, 2018 @ 9:21 am

    The example that was given to me to explain the distinction between "health" and "wellness" (as used by medical professionals): Someone who has diabetes and high blood pressure but who is managing their conditions well (excercise, good diet, etc) and is generally happy and productive would be considered "well" but not necessarily "healthy."

    Source: my mom is a registered nurse

  18. david said,

    May 2, 2018 @ 9:30 am

    I associate the rise in the use of the word wellness with the discovery of endorphins/enkephalins in the mid 1970s. These occur in the nervous system and inhibit pain by interacting with opoid receptors which were also discovered about the same time.

    I taught neurophysiology to first year medical students then and used the phrase “a sense of well-being” to describe the absence of pain produced by endorphins and perhaps by placebos via inducing the release of endorphins. I don’t think I was being original, I don’t remember where I read it.

  19. J.W. Brewer said,

    May 2, 2018 @ 9:45 am

    Separately, "Office of Alcohol and Other Drug Program Initiatives" makes my brain's parser hurt, or at least would if I weren't able to look past the actual wording and its uncertain syntactic structure to accurately guess the approximate intended meaning. I think part of the problem is the gratuitous insertion of "other," which is perhaps motivated by a peevish dislike of the common idiomatic use of "drugs" to mean a category of recreationally-used substances exclusive of alcohol. But this seems an unfortunate and unnecessary place to make the point "but alcohol is too a drug! So there, you dummies!" That "program initiatives" vaguely seems like it ought to mean something other than "programs" and indeed might in isolation mean something that would exclude programs-as-such from its scope is a further unnecessary complication.

    I think the moral of this comment is that university bureaucrats do not need shiny new lexical items in order to seem confusing and/or euphemistic but are quite capable of doing that with their old lexical inventories.

  20. John Lawler said,

    May 2, 2018 @ 10:24 am

    I noticed about 20 years ago that the word health has developed a bad connotation in American English (the phrase health care system has been described as a triple oxymoron, for instance), so much so that the new word wellness was being used as a euphemism, and a great deal of relabelling was going on in medical precincts and advertising.

  21. Joe Fineman said,

    May 2, 2018 @ 2:10 pm

    Bunker Hill Community College in Boston has recently put up a fancy building that proclaims itself to be a HEALTH AND WELLNESS CENTER. So it seems that there are people to whom neither term includes the other.

  22. J.W. Brewer said,

    May 2, 2018 @ 3:08 pm

    @Joe Fineman, that usage of "Health and Wellness" is consistent with thinking the terms overlap quite substantially but are not perfectly coterminous. Or it might be analogous to a bar with a sign in the window promising the availability of "Beers and Ales," which doesn't seem that odd even though relatively few people really think, when push comes to shove, that "ales" aren't a subset of "beers." (I.e. if you walked into a place that only advertised the availability of "beers" you wouldn't think the sign had been misleadingly incomplete because it turned out "ales" were also available.)

  23. J.W. Brewer said,

    May 2, 2018 @ 3:13 pm

    I should have added a footnote to my prior comment attributing my example to free-association from a half-remembered passage of cynicism from that distinguished philosopher of language W.V.O. Quine, which the wondrous internet helped me relocate: "Encyclopedias are inconclusive and a bit frantic in their effort to state ways in which ale, properly so called, may generally or frequently be said to differ from beer, properly so called.”

  24. David Marjanović said,

    May 2, 2018 @ 4:11 pm

    I've seen it explained (in German) as what came after fitness: don't just work out till it hurts, but be healthy and feel good.

    Also high on the list of Germany's innovative uses of the English language is "handy" as a noun, i.e. mobile or cellphone. I'd only ever known it as an adjective in England.

    Reportedly, the missing link is a long-forgotten brand name, the Handie-Talkie – said to be same thing as the Walkie-Talkie, just by a different company.

  25. D.O. said,

    May 2, 2018 @ 9:52 pm

    since you can have good health or bad health

    An old Russian joke:

    Доктор: На здоровье жалуетесь?
    Пациент: Кто ж на здоровье жалуется? Меня болезнь беспокоит.

    Doctor: Are you concerned with your health?
    Patient: No one is concerned with their health, it's illness that bothers me.

  26. D.O. said,

    May 2, 2018 @ 10:03 pm

    Does spam filter here eat Cyrillic or my attempted comment disappeared for no reason? Not that the comment was important, but it would be nice to know about posting Cyrillic.

    [(myl) Your comment was indeed caught in the spam filter. Since the spam filter is quasi-modern AI technology, it's impossible to know what features actually triggered the action. ]

  27. maidhc said,

    May 3, 2018 @ 2:38 am

    I think "health" is associated with surgical procedures and medication. "Wellness" is more about things like exercising and eating a balanced diet. I was going to say eating a healthy diet. I think the increased use of the term "healthcare" rather than "medical care" has made people associate it with doctors and hospitals. Thus there arises a need to have a word for what we used to call healthy living. Also the term "health food" seems to have fallen by the wayside.

  28. Rodger C said,

    May 3, 2018 @ 6:53 am

    I think the increased use of the term "healthcare" rather than "medical care" has made people associate it with doctors and hospitals.

    And the euphemism treadmill rumbles on.

    Also the term "health food" seems to have fallen by the wayside.

    Forty-odd years ago I always wanted to ask people that used that term, often rather dismissively (attach to "used"): Well, what do you eat food for?

  29. Haamu said,

    May 3, 2018 @ 9:59 am

    Cooper's use of "welnesse" is interesting. Most other translations of Ezekiel 16:49 use "idleness" or related concepts (e.g., "prosperous ease"). Both Coverdale (1535) and Wycliffe (1395) have "idilnesse." Any chance of an OCR error?

  30. Joe Fineman said,

    May 3, 2018 @ 8:14 pm

    Just today I saw another "Health and Wellness", on signs labeling bookshelves in a bookstore in Boston. That, however, does not necessarily imply that the proprietors think the terms are overlapping but not synonymous. lt may mean "Whatever you think they mean, you'll find your book here".

    A somewhat similar pair of Siamese twins I often see in the news these days is "moral and ethical". That presumably does not hark back to the days when "ethics" mean moral philosophy; it may not even allude to the recent usage of "ethics" for professional codes. It, also, may a matter of "whatever you think it means".

  31. maidhc said,

    May 5, 2018 @ 5:24 am

    Just today I saw "health and wellness" associated with some kind of fair that people could attend. Not associated with any government programs that might deal with such issues.

  32. ktschwarz said,

    May 5, 2018 @ 10:22 pm

    A semantic shift in "health", and a huge rapid increase in "wellness": that's the kind of change that often gets peeved at. Has there been any peeving on "wellness"? I haven't noticed any.

  33. Doug said,

    May 6, 2018 @ 6:41 am

    ktschwarz said,

    "Has there been any peeving on "wellness"? I haven't noticed any."

    Back in the 1980s, when that salad bar I mentioned was labeled "Wellness Bar" someone writing in a student publication complained, "Wellness isn't even a word."

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