or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Hale Storm

Slate.com has an article about someone on The Food Network, which I don't get and therefore have no opinion about. I just read it because it sounded interesting. The article contained a link to an online version of a slam book about this person, Rachael Ray, and that contained the following statement:

"I'm not looking for trouble here, but I need to say something in Rachael's defense. People like to ridicule her for saying food is healthful instead of healthy, but the way I see it, she's right. I mean, if a red bell pepper, for instance, is "healthy," then it's an exemplary specimen of the bell pepper plant. If it's good for you, it's "healthful." I always thought that, and was glad to hear someone say it the way I thought was right. Plus, there are SO many other good reasons to ridicule her. "

Well, this is what happens when you let amateurs into the grammar game, I suppose. Imagine what a dreadful state the language would be in if everything were algorithms and literal interpretations!

If we were to take the construction of "healthful" literally, it would mean "full of health", and therefore mean just what the writer (and Rachel Ray) think it doesn't mean. In fact, it has two meanings: "conducive to health" (which is their intended meaning) and "displaying health". "Healthy" itself also possesses these two meanings. In other words, the two terms--and this is amazingly rare in English--are entirely interchangeable. "Healthy food", to nearly every English speaker on earth, doesn't mean "food that is in good health"; it means "food that is healthy for people to eat" or "food that promotes good health".

It is true that "healthful" is generally used to mean only "conducive to health", and that's just fine: we corral words all the time in that manner. What isn't fine is the niggling, Jesuitical insistence that therefore the other word must mean only the other thing. It isn't the case. It's the sort of thing that contaminates the good name of prescriptive grammarians, who only want people to speak and write well.


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