Here’s hoping everyone ate only “healthy” foods at Thanksgiving. Many people, including those watching calories or wanting to be “healthy,” probably ate only “healthful” foods.
Anyone who did not eat “healthy” foods probably spent the next day or so feeling very unhealthy, many users of proper English might say, because “healthy” means “not sick;” it does not mean “good for you.” The foods that are good for you, they will say, are “healthful.”
Not so fast.
“People who hold this view are swimming against the tide of history, for healthy has been used to mean ‘healthful’ since the 16th century,” says the American Heritage Book of English Usage.
Many dictionaries define “healthy” as “healthful,” or “conducive to good health,” and “healthful” as “healthy.” But there are those who still insist that “healthy” is properly used only to describe the health of an object itself, not its effects.
That’s perfectly healthy usage for those who want to maintain the distinction—definitely a vanishing breed. Garner’s Modern American Usage is rooting to keep the two separate, saying the change “would lead to a less healthy state of the language.” Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage*, however, says that “if you observe the distinction between healthful and healthy you are absolutely correct, and in the minority. If you ignore the distinction you are absolutely correct, and in the majority.”
“Healthy,” meanwhile, is also used to mean “large” or “vigorous,” as in “she had a healthy helping of stuffing,” or “that certainly was a healthy tackle”—usage that has moved from nonstandard to colloquial to informal and, finally, to good health.
Note, though, that it would be sick to use “healthful” to describe something that has good health, rather than something that promotes good health. English isn’t always a two-way street.
Correction: This article’s sixth paragraph originally referred to a book entitled Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, which does not actually exist. The correct title is Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage. CJR regrets the error.Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.