The Economist recently wrote about the world’s safest airlines, rated up to seven stars, noting that “The list of ten airlines which received just one star is comprised of less salubrious names like Batik Airlines, Kal-star Aviation and Trans-Nusa.”
What do “less salubrious names” mean? Well, when most people think of the word “batik,” they think of the dye-patterned fabric. “Kal-star” might evoke images of Superman’s Kryptonian name, Kal-El, and “Trans-Nusa” just kind of puzzles, unless you know that “Nusa” is in the name of many Indonesian islands. So it’s kind of hard to think of what image The Economist was trying to bring to mind.
Put into context, these airlines rate the lowest on the safety scale. So you might think of them as “unsafe,” “dangerous,” or even “something to avoid.” You might not think of them as “less healthful” or “less healthy.” Even though that’s what “less salubrious” means. And it is the airlines, not their names, that might not be good for your health.
“Salubrious” is one of those $10 words that journalists like to use, at least in writing. You almost never hear it spoken. In print, though, it appears dozens of times, in references to warm days, treatment or cures for Alzheimer’s disease, an ugly industrial estate, the impact of voting on civic life, and in reference to Bernie Sanders’ impact on Hillary Clinton’s behavior.
When journalists use a word that may be unfamiliar with readers, especially in such diverse contexts, it could delay or blur the message. Though many writers pride themselves on sending readers to dictionaries, it’s unclear how many of those readers then come back.
“Salubrious” does have a healthy etymology. From the Latin word “salus,” for “health,” it entered English in the 16th century as a reference to food or medicine to improve your health and well-being. It has increasingly gained figurative uses, and The Oxford English Dictionary has a draft entry for an even broader use traced to the mid-19th century: “pleasant, attractive, comfortable; well-maintained, prosperous.”
So while “salubrious” was dictionary correct in all those cases, it’s still a $10 word.
A sometimes-synonym for “salubrious” is “salutary.” Also traceable to the Latin “salus,” it also means “useful,” “beneficial,” or “wholesome.” It’s been used to describe the “less salutary” effects of Justice Antonin Scalia’s rulings, the “salutary” lessons of Bosnia, or how a detox using plants from the Rwandan rainforest “might not sound like the most salutary thing to do on holiday.” (CNN seems to be fond of “salutary.”)
William Shatner even used it in an article on the book he wrote about Leonard Nimoy: “There’s nothing detrimental,” he told The Oregonian. “It’s all salutary.” He meant it as a “salute,” which also traces to “salus.”
When you get down to it, when you deliver “salutations” or “salute” something or someone, you’re hoping they’ll stay healthy. And of course there’s the toast “salud,” or “to your health.”
By the way, we’ve already pooh-poohed the insistence on “healthful” for something good for you and “healthy” for something that has its own good health. So please don’t write, at least not about this.
Back to that Economist piece on airlines. We’re willing to bet many of you thought we were going to talk about The Economist’s use of “comprised of.” Sorry: Even though one man has made it his mission to root out every example in Wikipedia in which “comprised of” was used instead of “comprises” or “composed of,” that plane has left the terminal. Many of us were taught that the whole “comprises” the parts and or “is composed of” the parts, and that there’s no such thing as “comprised of.” Garner’s Modern American Usage said “comprised of” is “increasingly common but has always been considered poor usage,” and lists it at Stage 4 on the five-stage Language-Change Index. That means only people intent on the “salubrious” perfection of English object to it. Arguing over it may not be good for your health.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.