This article is a preview from the Autumn 2018 edition of New Humanist

well-being 16th century, from Old English “wel” (abundantly) and the gerundive of to be (to exist)

One of the key words of our day must surely be “well-being”. In fact, it’s getting to a point where if you’re not sure you’ve got well-being happening for you, you should be worried. You might think it’s new, but in fact it’s been recorded as early as 1561. The Oxford English Dictionary cites a translation of an Italian text from that year as: “I will not now speak of the profit that the world hath by women beside the bearing of children, for it is well enough declared how necessary they be, not only to our being, but also to our well being.” So “women” are good for “our” well-being. If we are charitable, I guess we should take it that “our well being” means “for all humanity” and not just for men.

By 1756, someone observed that water was “necessary for the well being of man” which seems about right, and by 1929, ultra-violet rays could also be said to be good for our well-being, though of course we now know that ultra-violet rays can also be said to be bad for our well-being. By 2012, the Church Times noticed that “family relationships” were good for children’s well-being, indicating that a person’s well-being might be a consequence of the actions of others. If you’re a parent, though, this becomes your responsibility and you should buy books to give you guidance with this. It is in this zone of self-help that the phrase is mostly used today. Of course self-help can easily slide into “blame-you”. After all, if you’re not radiating well-being then you’re “not looking after yourself”. Shame on you, then.

The structure of “well” plus “being” seems to have come as a translation from Latin (bene esse), French (bien être) and Italian (benessere), though technically speaking these phrases mean literally “well to be”. One nightmare for speakers of Romance languages is trying to figure out our seemingly random way of being able to say both “I like to eat” and “I like eating”, but not “I want being” as well as “I want to be”. So “well being” or “well-being” or “wellbeing” it is.

This article may or may not have contributed to your well-being. Your call, as they say.