Hail, Heal, Holy, Whole

It isn’t every day you learn something because of a bottle of mineral water, but the other day I did and was reminded again of how much the development of language proceeds along strange chains of logic. It was lunchtime and the glass bottle Spouse pulled out of the crate of mineral water he’d bought a few days ago wasn’t a standard middlingly fizzy Gerolsteiner like all of its crate-fellows, but a bottle of the “Heilwasser” line sprung, if not from the same spring, then at least from the same company.

“Huh,” I said, tasting it and deciding it tasted a lot like a normal standard Gerolsteiner but shifted up in tone a few notes. “Is Heilwasser holy water or healing water?”

It turned out to be the latter. Holy water would have been heiliges Wasser if it wasn’t actually Weihwasser, meaning ceremonial water, the way Germans call Christmas (Eve) Weihnacht (ceremonial night) because it was that one night a year everybody was sure to pack themselves into the church for mass? At any rate, how odd that the German language uses more or less the same root (heil) for holy (heilige), for the verb to heal (heilen), and for salvation (Heil), not to mention for that Heil that was used to mean Hail! in association with a certain massively murderous 20th century personage with Ceasorial aspirations. It’s enough to make you wonder what grew out of what grew out of what.

Interestingly, when you question the great oracle known as the Online Etymology Dictionary, you discover that it all comes from the proto-Indo-European root (kailo) that means “whole,” including the word whole itself.

Apparently, originally, to heal someone or something was to make them whole, hence the link between words like heal, healing, healthy, whole, and wholesome. Hail, as in Hail Caesar, or Heil, the Old German greeting, was wishing good tidings, such as health, happiness, and prosperity, upon someone. And holy came from the idea, perhaps, that that which was holy (and I quote here from the Online Etymology Dict) “that must be preserved whole or intact, that cannot be transgressed or violated.” Then I guess it must have bent itself around backwards to encompass the idea that that which was holy could cure you of ills.

Anyway, if you read the fine print on the Heilwasser, all it was able to legally claim to be able to do was support your conventional medical treatment for kidney stones that have migrated into your ureter.

Hmmm, next time I have lunch with Spouse, I’ll have to ask him if there is a single German word for that.

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