What Does "Hale and Hearty" Mean?

J.E. Holloway

The phrase "hale and hearty" is an idiomatic English expression used to describe a person who is in vigorous good health. It is often used to refer to elderly people who have survived into old age with their health and fitness intact, or to a person who might otherwise not be expected to be in good health. It can also be used to refer by analogy to things other than people, such as ideas or institutions.

"Hale and hearty" usually refers to elderly people who remain in good health at an advanced age.
"Hale and hearty" usually refers to elderly people who remain in good health at an advanced age.

The term "hale and hearty" derives from Old English, the language spoken in England prior to the late 11th century. In Old English, the word "hal" means "safe" or "unhurt." It is the root word of the modern English words "whole" and "heal," as well as "health" and "hail." The modern English word "hale," meaning fit and healthy, derives from this root, but is now seldom used.

The word "hearty" first appears in the 14th century and is used to mean "spirited" or "courageous." In the Middle Ages, the heart was thought to be the seat of feelings. As a result, a wide variety of English terms refer to the heart in this way. Examples include "hard-hearted," "heartfelt" and "heartbreak." To be "hearty," therefore, is to have a strong heart and to be in high spirits.

The combination of these two terms in the expression "hale and hearty" gives a picture of an individual who is both in good physical condition — hale — and also vigorous and full of life, or hearty. The expression is one of a number of alliterating couplets which are in common use in English. Other examples of such conventional pairings include "rack and ruin," "safe and sound," "thick and thin," "bright-eyed and bushy-tailed," "friend or foe" and others. In linguistics, these types of phrases are known as "irreversible binomials" (or, informally, as "Siamese twins,") because the order of the pair cannot be reversed. No native English speaker would say "hearty and hale" instead of "hale and hearty," any more than he or she would say "foe or friend?"

Due to its prevalence in common speech, "hale and hearty" is recognizable to most English speakers, even though "hale" is not in common use. This ease of recognition gives the phrase value for advertisers. As a result, this phrase is a brand name for a number of different businesses, primarily restaurants and other food producers.

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