The Whole Truth

A correspondent named Jitendra Pant recently asked me to elaborate on the etymology of whole:

Dear Jonathon, I am wondering why whole has a spelling beginning with ‘w’ and not just ‘hole’. Online checking suggests that ‘hole’ and ‘whole’ did have related origins, but departed around the 15th century, when ‘wh’ was introduced. doesn’t say why. The Am Heritage concurs for hal, hole. And a 5-year-old nephew asked, so I am counting on your reply. Thank you!

I certainly don’t want to disappoint Jitendra’s nephew, so here goes.

It’s true that the word whole didn’t originally have the w, but it’s not actually related to hole. As the Online Etymology Dictionary, whole comes from the Old English hal and is related to the German heil. Related words without the w can still be seen in heal, hale, and health. These words apparently all go back to a Proto-Indo-European root *kailo-, ‘whole, uninjured, of good omen’.

Hole, on the other hand, goes back to a different Proto-Indo-European root, *kel-, meaning ‘to cover, conceal, save’. Eventually this developed into the ‘cave, hollow place’ sense. Hole was generally spelled hol in Old English, so the two words were not originally homophones. It wasn’t until Middle English that they started to converge in spelling and pronunciation.

So where do we get that unetymological w in whole? In the entry for whole, the Online Etymology Dictionary simply says that the wh- spelling arose in the early 15th century. In the entry for wh-, it says that the wh spelling was sometimes added to borrowed words like whiskey and native words formerly spelled with only w- or h- like whole and whore. It even threatened to spread to words like home and hot. It doesn’t explain why this spelling took off, but The Oxford English Dictionary provides a clue.

Under the entry for whole, it says, “Spellings with initial wh- appear in the mid 15th cent. and reflect development of a w-glide chiefly before long open ǭ (see discussion at wh n.), sometimes followed by loss of the initial h-.” That is, people started spelling it with a w- because they had started saying it with a w.

The entry for wh elaborates on this a little, saying that in the early 15th century, wh- started appearing in a lot of words beginning with ho-, including home, hot, and holy, the last of which appears as wholy in William Tyndale’s 1526 translation of the Bible. The pronunciation of these words with the w survives in some dialects, but it apparently fell out of Standard English fairly quickly, leaving only whole and whore with the modified spelling but the original pronunciation with h.

Interestingly, a similar change happened around the same time to words beginning with o. The word one began to appear with a w around 1450 (Tyndale has it as won), as did oat and oak. Only one kept the pronunciation with the w in Standard English (though it didn’t keep the won spelling), though, again, dialectal pronunciations of the other words with w can still be found.

The older pronunciation of one with a long o and no w can still be found in compounds and derived forms like only, alone, and atone, though the modern descendent of the w-less form of one is the enclitic ‘un (as in young’uns).

It’s not clear to me if these two changes—the addition of a w in words beginning with ho and the addition of a w in words beginning with o—are really the same change or are just two related changes that happened around the same time. Either way, it’s interesting to see the way they left their mark on the spelling and pronunciation of a few words, even after they had otherwise vanished from Standard English.