Is your salad healthy or healthful?
Healthy versus Healthful: The problem is that some people insist that you can’t say your salad is healthy; you have to say it’s healthful because only healthful can mean “conducive to good health.” The thinking is that only a living thing can be healthy—if we’re in good health, you and I can describe ourselves as healthy. Healthy is a personal characteristic, but things that are dead, things we consume, aren’t healthy anymore. If they’re good for us, they’re healthful.
Here’s a joke from an 1895 usage guide that played on this kind of thinking: “The physician implied precise English, when, to the inquiry whether oysters were ‘healthy’ at certain seasons, he replied, ‘I have never heard one complain of an ache or an ail.”
That was the thinking in the 1800s when usage and etiquette writers railed against healthy and recommended healthful or wholesome. (Of course these were the same people who said you should call a woman’s garment a gown instead of a dress.)
Healthy has long been used to describe things that improve your constitution. The Oxford English Dictionary shows that healthy has been used to mean “healthful or wholesome” since the 1500s. Yet, the rule makers railed against healthy in the 1800s, and it was in a battle against healthful for dominance for many years. Ultimately, though, people voted for a healthy diet instead of a healthful diet.