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  • Paul Anthony Jones


(adj.) entire, complete

On the surface, it’s not the most interesting of words, but whole has something of an intriguing story behind it.

Etymologically, whole comes from its Old English equivalent, hal. (In the sense of being solidly sound, it’s an etymological cousin of the hale in expressions like “hale and hearty.”) Its initial wh– is first recorded in the late Middle English period, with spellings like whoole, whol, and whoal found in the historical record from the mid 1400s onwards. But as we mentioned on Twitter, it wasn’t just whole that picked up a new initial letter around that time, as a trend emerged in the fifteenth century for adding a W to words that at that time began with an H, followed by an “oh” sound. So as well as hal giving way to whole, the likes of ‘whood’ for hood, ‘wholy’ for holy, ‘whome’ for home, and even ‘whot’ for hot all also emerged around that time. Whereas all the others eventually reverted back to their original W-less form, however, whole is the only word in common use to have kept its W permanently. (As a side note, the only other W-word that’s often picked out as an example of this change is the decidedly less everyday word whore.)

That’s all well and good, of course, but what drove this somewhat unusual trend in the first place? Well, there’s a bit of a long and convoluted story behind our humble wh, admittedly, but here’s a quick breakdown.

Oddly, the wh combo of letters we have in English today was originally written hw—famously giving us “Hwæt!”, the opening word of Beowulf. Back in Old English, this hw would likely have represented a sound more akin to either the throaty “ch” at the word of words like loch and Bach, or a kind of breathier “w” than we tend to find in Modern English. No matter its precise articulation, however, the sound represented by hw in Old English had no obvious equivalent in the Latin alphabet, and so a digraph—a combination of two characters—was used to represent it instead, as a kind of makeshift solution.

Starting around the 1100s, however, it became increasingly common in English for hw to be turned around and written wh—transforming Beowulf’s hwæt into Modern English what, for instance. Quite why this change took place is the subject of countless theories and explanations, including simple scribal error, visual clarity on the page, the influence of French on English after the Norman Conquest, and the equivalent influence of medieval Latin. Truth is, we’re not entirely sure why hw turned into wh—but what we do know is that by the mid 1400s, wh was becoming so widespread that it even began to be rolled out onto words where, etymologically, there was no reason for it to be there at all.

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