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February 15th, 2006

Torino or Turin? / healthy vs. healthful / ethics is or are?

by Barbara Wallraff

Julian H. Fisher, of Brookline, Mass., writes: “The logo for the current Olympics reads ‘Torino 2006.’ If I’m talking about the Olympics, should I say ‘Torino’ or ‘Turin’?”

Dear Julian: “Torino” is the Italian name for Turin. But if you start with “Torino,” the next thing you know, you’ll want to call Rome “Roma,” Florence “Firenze” and Venice “Venezia.” That is, you’ll have to learn some Italian.

You’ll need other languages for other countries. For instance, when Russians discuss Moscow, they write “Mockba” in their own Cyrillic alphabet and “Moskva” in our Roman alphabet, and they pronounce the name of the city the way those Roman letters suggest. It’s not just English-speakers who “translate” many place names. Italians call London “Londra” and Paris “Parigi.”

In English, “Turin” is a classic example of an “exonym” -- “a name by which one people or social group refers to another and by which the group so named does not refer to itself,” as the American Heritage Dictionary defines this word. “Everybody does it” is usually a lame reason to do something, but I think it’s a sound reason for us English-speakers to continue saying and writing “Turin.”

Eugene K. Duskek, of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, writes: “I go bonkers when I see and hear the words ‘healthy’ and ‘healthful’ used interchangeably in print and on TV. To me, ‘healthy’ means ‘in good health,’ and ‘healthful’ means ‘helping to produce, promote or maintain health.’ Over and over there are references to ‘healthy diets,’ ‘healthy foods’ and so on. How can something like a diet be ‘healthy’? I don’t think it is correct, and my sister, who was an English teacher for years, agrees.”

Dear Eugene: I happen to share your feelings, and so do a number of other people who have written me about “healthy” and “healthful.” But we’re being awfully finicky. For as long as “healthy” has been an English word -- about 450 years -- it has meant both “in good health” and “promoting good health.”

In fact, it’s not unusual for an adjective to approach its subject from more than one angle. Consider “happy man” and “happy coincidence,” or “honest woman” and “honest mistake.” Phrases like these don’t confuse anyone: We know that the man feels happy and that the coincidence doesn’t. See if you can invent a sentence that someone might actually say in which it’s not clear which way “healthy” is meant. I can’t.

Of course, nobody can make me or you or your sister use “healthy” if we’d rather use “healthful.” “Healthful” is a perfectly good word too. But it isn’t fair of us to hold it against people who use “healthy” in this sense.

Eric Norman, of Madison, Wis., writes: “In a campus newspaper here a politician was quoted as saying, ‘... obviously doesn’t understand what ethics is.’ Gaffe or not? Are ethics a bunch of things to be known? Or is ethics just one thing that folks should know about?”

Dear Eric: “What ethics is” is all right by me. Like “politics” and “economics,” “ethics” is often used -- correctly -- with a singular verb. The only real gaffe I notice in the tale you tell is not understanding what ethics is.

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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