Unhealthful (AmE) while Unhealthy (BrE)

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I read on a manuscript the term unhealthful. It appeared as :

"The environment has become unhealthful due to foul odor coming from piles of garbage and scattered wastes."

The word is unfamiliar to me and Google gave me a 13-year old result regarding the use of the word.


Is this true? or the word unhealthful have some special and rare uses?
Farlex Dictionary has a definition for the word, so as Oxford under the British-English option, but Merriam does not.
  • dadane

    Senior Member
    I have never heard unhealthful. The OED does list it, along with unhealthfully and unhealthfulness, but both definitions of unhealthful just redirect you to unhealthy. I note that it is not classified as obsolete or rare, this would suggest it may still be in use somewhere. I think if you were to use it, many people would view it as a mistake.


    Senior Member
    British English (Sussex)
    The Merriam-Webster dictionary online has an example for "healthful": "the girl's pretty, healthful face" - Saul Bellow. I think a case could be made for "healthful" there as "full of health"; a sense which is not conveyed so well by "healthy", (not sick).

    I can't think of any similar nuance that might be conveyed by "unhealthful".

    Sparky Malarky

    English - US
    "The environment has become unhealthful due to foul odor coming from piles of garbage and scattered wastes."

    I would say that the sentence was written this way to make it clear that the writer is not saying that the environment is sick, but rather that the environment is making people sick. It would not be too much of a stretch to talk about the environment being sick. The environment is not a living organism exactly, but the whole ecosystem behaves much as an organism and has been compared to an organism before. Saying "the environment has gotten sick" is a metaphor, but not an unlikely one. Saying "the environment has become unhealthy" could be taken to mean the same thing.

    Contrast these sentences:
    1. This variety of kale is healthy.
    2. This variety of kale is healthful.

    Sentence 2 clearly means that the kale is good for you. Sentence 1 might mean the same thing, but it could just as easily mean that the kale plants are resistant to pests and disease.


    Member Emeritus
    English - US
    There used to be a strict demarcation between healthful and healthy, the former meaning "conducive to good health" and the latter meaning "possessing good health". (Both are perfectly good contemporary words, the negatives being unhealthful and unhealthy, as in "polluted air is unhealthful" or "he has an unhealthy look".) Some of us still like to draw that line, so as to avoid the sort of possible ambiguity that Sparky cites in post #6.

    But for more than a hundred years, "healthy" and "unhealthy" have been used in both senses. In other words, you can say "fruits are healthy foods" to mean that fruits are good for your health, and it's considered acceptable.


    Senior Member
    English - England
    for more than a hundred years, "healthy" and "unhealthy" have been used in both senses
    It's a lot more than 100 years: the OED's first example of "healthy" in the sense of "promoting health" is from the 16th century:
    1577 B. Googe tr. C. Heresbach Foure Bks. Husbandry i. f. 8v, Best is it..in good and healthy places, to set the house toward the East.


    New Member
    In formal English, things are healthful (i.e., good for one's health). People or other creatures are healthy (i.e., in a state of good health). Courtesy www.englishplus.com/grammar/00000219.htm Therefore things are unhealthful (i.e., bad for one's health). People or other creatures are unhealthy (i.e., in a state of poor health).
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