If so, it was your lucky week as the New York Times Magazine’s “On Language” column by Ben Zimmer was devoted to answering that very question.Whatever you think of the topic at hand, the article presents an interesting analysis of the way words enter our lexicon, even if it concludes somewhat unsatisfactorily.
What did we learn? A few things. Like key parties, weird wife swaps and that Swedish fad, jøgging, “wellness” originated in the 1970s. Unlike most of those things, it has only gained in popularity and usage over time. Zimmer writes, perhaps somewhat plaintively:
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?
As with many such new age fads, it got a big push from Berkeley, whose School of Public Health began its Berkeley Wellness Letter in 1984. Here’s how that went down:
The NBC newsman Edwin Newman had televised an exposé of Marin County’s hedonistic lifestyle, which notoriously opened with a woman getting a peacock-feather massage from two nude men. The Berkeley Wellness Letter, however, managed to avoid such unseemly associations by publishing serious, evidence-based articles on health promotion, while debunking many of the holistic health fads of the day.
As to how the word became part of our lexicon the best answer Zimmer can present is somewhat circular: we used it a lot. Though a critical note of the word was in the 1992 American Heritage Dictionary (yeah, I don’t really know exactly what that means, but it sounds bad), but by 200o, it was gone, apparently enshrining in wellness’s acceptance into our hearts and minds. In closing, “A word that once sounded strange and unnecessary, even to its original boosters, has become tacitly accepted as part of our lexicon of health.”