An etymology of wealth

On Saturday I was at the Christian Ecology Link‘s 30th anniversary conference, and Johnathan Porritt mentioned the ancient origins of the word ‘wealth’. Originally, he suggested, it had a much broader meaning than financial wealth, and it has narrowed over time.

That made me curious, and I looked it up. ‘Wealth’ comes from the old English ‘weal’, which means ‘wealth, welfare, and wellbeing’. Weal is in turn related to the older word ‘wel’, meaning ‘in a state of good fortune, welfare, or happiness’.

‘Wel’ gives birth to ‘welth’ around 1250 AD, and ‘welthi’ a century or so later. By 1430 it seems to have settled around the idea of riches and prosperity, leaving behind the older meanings of wider wellbeing and health.

We’ve got almost 600 years of language to contend with, but wouldn’t it be useful if we could reclaim the full meaning of the word?



  1. If we revive the fuller meaning of wealth you’ll have to change ‘Make Wealth History’. Will you become ‘Make the World Well’?

  2. I was familiar with this background due to the word “commonwealth” (one learns such words as a citizen of the Commonwealth of Australia), which was originally less to do with sharing the riches, as it was the common good more generally (the “common weal”). I haven’t tried looking it up, but I suspect that “commonwealth” retained the old meaning of “weal(th)” for longer than the word “wealth” itself.

  3. I’m taking a medieval England module at university at the moment, and while reading for that yesterday I discovered that one Latin word for wealth was ‘pecunia’, which originally meant ‘livestock’ but came to mean ‘money’ when the Roman Empire developed a universal coinage. In Domesday Book, ‘pecunia’ describes a man’s ‘stock’ in the form of cattle, pigs, sheep or goats, and England’s economic resources are described in terms of different kinds of land, waterways, minerals and manufactures, domestic animals and above all workers of different ranks and skills. I like that idea of wealth being measured, as Christopher Dyer says, not by the amount of money a country issues but ‘by its ability to produce sufficient goods to give its people an adequate living.’

  4. That is why it is important to check the etymology of a word. It is only then that one can fully grasp the full and complete meaning of that word.

  5. The wealth of nations necessarily had origins. My son informed me that original wealth derives from timber, farming, fishing and mining. I think littlenavyfish hit it on the head

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