Lexical Investigations: Holistic

A motley combination of Anglo-Saxon, Latin, and Germanic dialects, the English language (more or less as we know it) coalesced between the 9th and 13th centuries. Since then, it has continued to import and borrow words and expressions from around the world, and the meanings have mutated. Some specimens in the English vocabulary have followed unusually circuitous routes to their place in the contemporary lexicon, and this series, Lexical Investigations, unpacks those words hiding in our midst.


General Jan Smuts, holisticFrom holistic food stores to holistic education, it seems there is a holistic approach to just about everything in today’s culture. Holism was term coined in 1926 by General Jan Smuts, a South African military leader, politician, and philosopher. Smuts was the architect of the League of Nations and wrote the preamble to the United Nations Charter. In his book Holism and Evolution, Smuts defined holism as “the tendency in nature to form wholes that are greater than the sum of the parts through creative evolution.” He derived the term from the Greek word holos, meaning “wholes.” Though Smuts’s theory was more nuanced, holism came to be used more generally to describe anything that focuses on whole systems rather than their parts. The 1960s saw the rise of holistic medicine, an approach that emphasizes treating the whole human being rather than a particular part of the body. Today we use holistic most often to refer to treatments considered outside the mainstream, and those including nutrition.

Popular References:

Natural Holistic Institute

American Holistic Medical Association

“Towards a definition of holism,” Joshua Freeman. British Journal of General Practice. 2005 February 1; 55(511): 154–155. British Journal of General Practice, 2005.

Holism and Evolution, Jan Smuts. MacMillan, 1926.

Relevant Quotations:

“Holism as an active creative process means the movements of the universe towards ever more and deeper wholeness.”

—J.C. Smuts, Holism and Evolution (1927)

“There seems to be no advantage to the continuation of separate faculties for pediatrics and hygiene in this era of emphasis on holistic medicine.”

—Edwin Richard Weinerman, Shirley B. Weinerman, Social Medicine in Eastern Europe (1969)

“MDs who believe in the holistic philosophy, says Shealy, are more apt to be interested in new and alternative approaches than are traditional physicians.”

Human Behavior, Vol 8 (1979)

“IBM are trying to take their whole product set and create a holistic solution to managing information”

—Barry Murphy, Bloomberg News (2005)


  1. Don -  November 9, 2014 - 8:23 am

    I wish some of the haters of the word, holism would explain why it is hated.

  2. S R SAIFI -  May 2, 2013 - 8:42 am

    Amazing. We thought The word was a bit difficult but it made my day.Thank you so much.

  3. http://trimextrindiet.com -  April 23, 2013 - 4:36 am

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  4. carteles -  April 12, 2013 - 3:06 am

    This chapter mostly deal with medicine. I want to read more in the coming days to give my comment.thanks for sharing this post.

  5. kuhrdan1 -  February 25, 2013 - 12:06 pm

    I wonder if Smuts was familiar with the writings of Christian von Ehrenfels (Austrian, 1859-1932) who introduced the concept of ‘gestalt.’ His writings emerged into ‘gestalt psychology.’ ‘Gestalt’ theory relies on the concept of ‘holism,’ affirming that the sum is greater than its parts.

  6. pkentropy -  February 17, 2013 - 9:20 am

    After reading the available Comments regarding the task of defining ‘holism,’ I should conclude that a holistic approach would trump all others. When I hear ‘holism’, my connectome immediately returns ‘systems approach’; well, after, that is, I get by other returns such as ‘Depak Chopra.’

  7. Joe -  February 17, 2013 - 6:47 am

    I hate English teachers that don’t hate that word.

  8. Toni Christman -  February 15, 2013 - 9:38 pm

    In psychology, the term used for “a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts” is Gestalt. It’s interesting to note the holistic evolution.

  9. Jean-Gardner -  February 15, 2013 - 7:49 am

    It should be noted that the concept of holism and holistic ways of viewing the world, medicine and systems are relatively recent for the Western world, but for many of the ancient civilizations (Chinese, Indian subcontinent, Native American and Australian aborginals, to name a few), this is nothing new. I believe that a new period of Enlightenment is likely to occur when our nascent view of holism becomes fully integrated in our daily lives with the true essence of holism in these cultures.

  10. Roger Koay Chan Khoon -  February 15, 2013 - 6:15 am

    It is obnubilating of encyclopedia.

  11. stacey -  February 15, 2013 - 5:52 am

    This history lesson is proof our language is alive and we take part in the development.

  12. Danny -  February 14, 2013 - 11:45 am

    I am not an English teacher and I do hate that word.

  13. David -  February 14, 2013 - 9:43 am

    I am an English teacher and I do not hate that word.

  14. Silly1 -  February 14, 2013 - 2:56 am

    I always that from a medical point of view a holistic approach didn’t just address the whole being but did it from the point of view of nutrition, environment, mental attitude, physical activity and other aspects that can effect our health, besides the administration of meds.
    Can’t be a Silly1 all the time. Good article.

  15. Trish -  February 13, 2013 - 11:18 pm

    Seems it has just become a buzzword nowadays. It’s ironic that I was just reading a magazine on outdoor living when I came across the word and thought I would check it in your dictionary, and Voila! there it is the word of the day!

  16. Kayne -  February 13, 2013 - 1:15 pm

    English teachers hate this word!!

  17. K.G.Parthasarathy -  February 13, 2013 - 5:58 am

    It is just the beginning. Smuts has started and several other writers have given their own definitions. This chapter mostly deal with medicine. I want to read more in the coming days to give my comment.

  18. Anil Pais -  February 13, 2013 - 4:15 am

    The word “holistic” has been beautifully explained!

  19. Cyberquill -  February 13, 2013 - 1:35 am

    For some reason, “holistic” makes me think of Swiss cheese.

  20. HOLISTIC | BLOGCHI@mayopia.com -  February 12, 2013 - 11:16 am

    [...] ‘Holistic’  — Earthly Humanistic — Self-Correcting for even the Few  — Greater than the Sum of its parts — What’s a Specialist to do? — Some are better than others — Alas the lonely little toe. — Are Fathers lesser than mothers? — Please, Please — Say it isn’t so. — Competing on a level playing field. — Doing ones particular job — Greater than the sum of body, spirit and mind — Mayhap we’re more than a delusional holistic snob — Most of all be kind. — Where is the Humor in Scat? — Smuts Holistic Reality even on the back of the bus? — Who can make a Donut Hole in that? — Ah but the Joke is on US. –>>L.T.Rhyme  — “Oui Oui.”  –>>J.J.Rousseau This entry was posted in DICTCOMHOTWORD, JJROUSSEAU, L.T.Rhyme and tagged JJRousseau, LT, LTRhyme, the HOT WORD on February 12, 2013 by LTRhyme. [...]


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