Wholistic vs. Holistic: What’s the Difference?

“Wholistic” and “holistic” both relate to holism, a philosophy that the universe and especially living nature is best understood in terms of interacting wholes rather than as a sum of its parts. The theory was first put forward by the South African statesman Jan Christian Smuts. He published a book on the subject, Holism and Evolution, in 1926. He also wrote an article about the topic for the 14th Edition of The Encyclopedia Britannica published in 1929. 

In his writing, Smuts spelled the word with an H. By 1939, ten years after he published his article, people had already begun to adopt “wholism” as an alternate spelling. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary (OED), the variant spelling “wholistic” dates from 1941. The secondary spelling likely resulted from the conflation of the word “holism” with the adjective “whole.” Both spellings are acceptable and correct. 

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Etymology

In his work, Smuts explained that he coined the term by combining the Greek holos, meaning whole, with the suffix -ism. The OED explains that holos evolved from the Proto-Indo-European root sol-, which meant “whole” or “well-kept.”

Interestingly, “whole” and “hol” are homophones derived from different Proto-Indo-European root words. The word “whole” comes from kailo-, a root that meant “whole, uninjured, of good omen,” rather than sol-. Up until the early 1500’s, “whole” would have been spelled with an H, as “hal” or “hol” (or even “hel” in Old Saxon). So, exchanging H for wh- is nothing new. 

Jan Smuts pulled from the Greek holos to create his philosophy, but the word “whole” also jives with his emphasis on wholeness. What started as a misspelling quickly evolved into an accepted variant of the word. 

You’ll see the following terms used interchangeably:

  • holistic approach / wholistic approach
  • holistic medicine / wholistic medicine
  • holistic lifestyle / wholistic lifestyle

Definitions

Merriam-Webster defines holistic as an adjective. 

It means:

  • of or relating to holism
  • relating to or concerned with wholes or with complete systems rather than with the analysis of, treatment of, or dissection into parts

Wholistic is an adjective, and Merriam-Webster lists “holistic” as its only definition. 

Synonyms

According to Thesaurus.com, some synonyms for holistic include:

  • comprehensive
  • integrated
  • aggregate
  • entire
  • full
  • total
  • universal

Other Words and Phrases

Healthline explains holistic medicine, writing, “Holistic medicine is a whole-body approach to healthcare. It aims to improve health and wellness through the body, mind, and soul.” They list osteopaths, integrative physicians, specialists in Ayurveda, naturopaths, and practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine as examples of holistic healthcare providers. 

“Holistic theory” is another way of describing holism, the philosophy introduced by Jan Smuts. This theory asserts that the parts of a whole cannot be understood without viewing them through a lens of interdependence. The philosophy prioritizes the relationships between systems and recommends viewing the whole in totality rather than as the sum of the parts. 

“Holistic lifestyle” or “holistic living” describes a way of addressing health concerns through a whole person lens, using meditation, spirituality, nutrition, homeopathy, naturopathy, and alternative medicine. In an article for Elite Daily, blogger Brenan Quirante explains, “It basically means you’re choosing to live your life and heal your body through natural remedies.” Since “holistic living” covers a wide range of different healing modalities, Consumer Reports urges caution. They explain how some naturopaths practice without a license: “That’s generally legal as long as they stick to basic lifestyle advice.”

The National Association of Nutrition Professionals (NANP) defines holistic nutrition as a philosophy that “one’s health is an expression of the complex interplay between the physical and chemical, mental and emotional, as well as spiritual and environmental aspects of one’s life and being.” In light of this, holistic nutritionists and other professionals in this field focus on improving diet, lifestyle, and attitude. 

The Words in Context

“Now, this space is dedicated to holistic healing and relaxation through a growing wellness trend called halotherapy.”
CBS4 Indianapolis, “Indianapolis Salt Cave Offers Tranquility…”

“Attending to any one aspect of our lives, be it financial, nutrition, relationships, etc. requires attending to a wholistic view of ourselves.”
Atlanta Journal Constitution, “Atlanta Among Top Cities…”

“‘It’s not just the gang members shooting each other, it’s the innocent victims that are in the crosswalk,’ said South L.A. Deputy Chief Regina Scott, a mother and grandmother whose family lives in the area. ‘The police department cannot do this alone. We cannot arrest our way out of this. This takes a wholistic approach.'”
Los Angeles Times, “In South L.A., Police Join Community Leaders…”

“Back in the office, in the main building, Fahim explains Sufra’s holistic approach to food aid. ‘We started with the intention of a food bank and a kitchen. Now they may be our core services, but they’re only really there to get people’s feet through the door so we can actually help them, because that one food parcel in the reality of your life is nothing. It keeps you fit for a week, but it doesn’t solve any problem apart from that problem being there next week.'”
Al Jazeera, “A Day in the Life of a London Food Bank”

Sources: 

  1. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/holistic
  2. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/wholistic
  3. https://www.etymonline.com/word/holistic
  4. https://www.etymonline.com/word/wholistic
  5. https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/wholistic-word-origin-and-use
  6. https://www.utpjournals.press/doi/pdf/10.3138/uram.7.4.288
  7. https://www.healthline.com/health/holistic-doctor#:~:text=Holistic%20medicine%20is%20a%20whole,the%20type%20of%20holistic%20specialty.
  8. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/coprolite
  9. https://www.ajc.com/life/atlanta-among-top-cities-for-keeping-new-years-resolutions/MVNOND5NHJD47N67M7OHLS5W3M/
  10. https://cbs4indy.com/this-morning/indianapolis-salt-cave-offers-tranquility-holistic-healing-in-history-rich-space/
  11. https://www.consumerreports.org/doctors/how-natural-doctors-can-hurt-you/
  12. https://nanp.org/what-is-holistic-nutrition/
  13. https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2020-10-02/in-south-l-a-police-join-community-leaders-to-denounce-gun-violence