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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 35 years


holistic

(1980’s | therapese? counterculturese? | “broad-based,” “seeing the big picture,” “gestalt”)

It’s easy for this word to sound annoyingly broad-brush; it has a very wide range of casual use. Here’s a by no means complete list:

1. concerned about the environment (“nutty-crunchy”)
2. balanced
3. wide-ranging, comprehensive
4. measured, moderate (in terms of time or use of resources)
5. appropriate in context (fitting, suitable)
6. unscientific

The common thread that unites nearly every instance involves awareness of at least one larger system within which the object of your attention lies. Attention to said larger system — also known as a “whole” — will pay off. Why not “wholistic”? That spelling is relatively rare, but it has been around for some time, and you still see it occasionally. “Holistic” was first spelled without the initial “w,” and its sporadic recurrence stems from a stubborn insistence on preserving an orthographic connection to the parent word. “Holism” is relatively rare, but it’s in the dictionary. I haven’t encountered “holist,” but I daresay someone has used it — it’s in the dictionary, too. “Holistic” modifies “approach,” “medicine,” or “health” far more often than any other nouns.

“Holistic” started its run in the seventies, mainly in the context of alternative medicine. It was part of a blizzard of new vocabulary generated by the counterculture. (Actually, the word dates back to the twenties and was just biding its time, according to the OED.) “Holistic medicine” meant two things:

1. taking into account the mental and emotional state of a patient and allowing it to inform diagnosis and treatment (another way to state this is something like treat the person who has the disease, not the disease that has the person)
2. encouraging patients to take responsibility for their own health, rather than relying too heavily on doctors.

People who talked about holistic medicine also talked about wellness. In 1979, Governor Jerry Brown decried the “medical-industrial complex”: “By employing what is called a ‘holistic’ approach, the Democratic presidential candidate said, he would focus on ‘wellness instead of sickness.'” They also tended to be conversant with such black arts as biofeedback, acupuncture, herbal medicine, etc. Because the basic concept is so simple and powerful, the word has spread speedily into many fields, including computer design, employee management, warfare, zoning, you name it. (In the last few years it seems to have become a code word in the names of medical marijuana dispensaries.)

I assumed it was a sixties word, and in a way it was, even if it didn’t get fully established for a couple of decades. It was part of an explosion of largely feeble resistance to a certain strain of Enlightenment rationalism which taught that selfishness promotes the greater good, a necessary axiom for our consumerist variety of industrial capitalism. That’s one kind of individualism, but partisans of holistic thought were also trying to combat a different kind: approaching problems by isolating their components, studying them ever more closely, and breaking them down ever more minutely. In either case, they were trying to counter the risks of fragmentation and atomism, which continue to underpin notions of American progress, whether economic, medical, or moral. The holist (there, I said it) says we’ve pushed too far in that direction. There’s more to good health than killing the right microbes, and it’s plain foolhardy to pretend the forest isn’t there just because we know so much about each of the trees. If you lose sight of the context and circumstances of your problem, you’ll get too many wrong answers.

Side note: individualism vs. communitarianism is one of the surest ways to distinguish right-wingers from left-wingers in political debates. You don’t have to be a tree hugger to be holistic, but it helps. And it goes right along with other progressive shibboleths like “interdependent” and “interdisciplinary.”

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