When I was a child, someone told me that if I crossed my eyes too long they would get stuck that way. Someone else told me that if I stepped on a rusty nail and didn’t get a
shot, my jaw would lock shut.
Thus two absolute laws of the universe were seared into my mind. I didn’t doubt them. I didn’t fact-check them. I didn’t make any distinctions between them.
My unquestioning belief in both bits of information had nothing to do with their plausibility. In fact, if you’d told me back then that only one of those two statements was true and asked me to guess which one, I probably would have pegged lockjaw as the fabrication.
Of course, lockjaw is real and that business about your eyes getting stuck is hogwash. But I was a kid, and kids aren’t renowned for their critical-thinking skills. No one was in a big hurry to teach those skills, either. No one ever told me I had the option of checking others’ facts. No one gave me the idea I could take such questions to doctors or libraries. So I went through life, like most kids I suppose, the perfect chump.
As I got older, I started to understand that much of what I believed as a child was nonsense. But there’s a natural tendency to consider the source. A piece of information that came from the same kid who had warned me of the dangers of saying “Bloody Mary” three times in succession is more suspect than some fact I got from a teacher or parent.
This is part of the reason that so many language myths are alive and well today. Teachers and parents, especially in the 1950s and ’60s, told kids that it’s “wrong” to use such-and-such word in such-and-such way. Kids, never questioning the source or thinking to fact-check, simply believed.
The words “healthy” and “healthful” are a quintessential example. Many people during their formative years heard that “healthy” means “in good health” and that “healthful” means promoting good health and that the distinction is absolute. Thus, they believe, you can say “Bobby is a healthy child” and “Bobby eats a healthful diet,” but you can’t say “Bobby eats a
But if these same people bothered to look it up, they’d see they’re wrong.
“Healthy: adjective…healthful” — Webster’s New World College Dictionary
“Healthy: …conducive to good health; healthful” — American Heritage Dictionary
“Healthy: …conducive to health” — Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary
For anyone who would argue that these modern dictionaries are just caving in to a recent erosion of the word, here’s a definition from my 1933 Oxford Universal Dictionary: “healthy…conducive to health.”
Some might guess that this is an American-grown atrocity against the mother tongue. But that would be wrong, too.
“The currency of the disliked use in America is not clear to me, but the problem hardly arises in Britain,” notes Fowler’s Modern English Usage, the venerable authority for British linguistic propriety.
“Healthful, meaning ‘conducive to good health’, is rarely used,” Fowler’s adds, citing sources that dub the word “literary,” “old-fashioned” and “formal.” “‘Healthy’ is by far the commoner word of the two and is used to mean either ‘possessing or enjoying good health’ or ‘conducive to good health.’”
So it may surprise you to hear that, when editing, I sometimes change “healthy” to “healthful.” But it’s not because the writer used “healthy” wrong. It’s because so many readers might think he did. After all, old myths die hard.
is author of “It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences.” She can be reached at