If You Take the ‘I’ Out of Illness, and Add ‘We’, You End Up With Wellness

Malcolm X? Charles Roppel? Mariel Hemingway? William Crosbie Hunter? Shannon L. Adler? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Some health problems can be ameliorated via collaborative action such as installing a water treatment facility, controlling a mosquito population, or reducing the transmission of a contagious disease.

This notion can be expressed by using wordplay. When the letter “I” in “Illness” is replaced by “We”, the result is “Wellness”. Would you please explore the provenance of this witty remark which is sometimes attributed to prominent activist Malcolm X.

Quote Investigator: The earliest match located by QI appeared in a Baton Rouge, Louisiana newspaper in March 1984. The quotation was spoken during a speech to local residents by Charles Roppel, the head of the Mental Health Promotion Branch of the California Department of Mental Health. The address highlighted the value of establishing and maintaining multiple relationships of friendship and love. Roppel presented his theme adroitly and compactly as follows: 1

He says, “Take the I out of illness, add W and E, and you have wellness.”

Malcolm X died in 1965. QI has not yet located any matches before 1984. The ascription to Malcolm X occurred by 2013. Thus, based on current evidence the linkage to Malcolm X is weak.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

The phrase “illness to wellness” has a long history. For example, an 1896 book discussing homoeopathy included the phrase, but it did not mention letter substitution: 2

The standpoint of health is a common and familiar one, as well as the liability to departures from it, but when we consider the transition from bad health to good health, from illness to wellness, the notion of a state of health is seen to be a very relative and a very general one.

In 1915 the book “Evening Round-Up” by William Crosbie Hunter included the phrase “illness to wellness”, but it also did not mention letter substitution: 3

Don’t get discouraged if you can’t suddenly change your life from shadow to sunshine, from illness to wellness. Big things take time and patience.

In March 1984 a newspaper in Baton Rouge, Louisiana reported that Charles Roppel employed the wordplay under examination as described at the beginning of this article.

Soon afterward a newspaper in Lafayette, Louisiana reported on another speech by Roppel containing the witticism: 4

Roppel summarized the idea of wellness with the thought that “if you take the ‘I’ out of illness, and add ‘we’, you end up with wellness.”

A couple days later a newspaper in Rayville, Louisiana reported on yet another speech by Roppel during which he employed the line and gave it further circulation: 5

In commenting upon the use of the word “wellness”, in the study, he added this quote: “You take the I out of illness and add we, and you have wellness.”

In 2012 a message in the Google Group “sias 2011” included an instance of the saying without attribution: 6

“When `I’ becomes `WE,’ Illness becomes Wellness.”

In 2013 a tweet attributed the saying to Malcolm X: 7

@Mahtabee: When “i” is replaced with “we” even illness becomes wellness... -Malcolm X

In 2015 an interview with actress Mariel Hemingway appeared in “The Cincinnati Enquirer” of Ohio. She employed the saying: 8

I like to say: Let’s take the I out of illness and substitute WE, so we get wellness. We can do something about that if we come together and talk about it and get the right help.

Also, in 2015 the book “Understanding Schizophrenia” attributed the saying to an author: 9

Never give up on someone with a mental illness. When “I” is replaced by “We,” illness becomes wellness.
Shannon L. Adler, Author.

In conclusion, Charles Roppel helped to popularize this saying, and he may have coined it based on the 1984 citations. The citations linking Malcolm X to the saying occurred late and provide only weak evidence.

(Great thanks to Maree Robertson, elliotttj, Noah Brier, Jason Zweig, Felix Salmon, and Faust whose inquiries led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Also thanks to discussants Ben Zimmer and Laurence Horn.)

Image Notes: Graphic created in Gimp.

Notes:

  1. 1984 March 17, Morning Advocate, Speaker notes friends ‘good medicine’ by Annabelle Armstrong (Advocate staff writer), Quote Page D1, Column 2, Baton Rouge, Louisiana. (GenealogyBank)
  2. 1896, Some Prolegmena to a Philosophy of Medicine by Giles F. Goldsbough M.D. (President of the British Homoeopathic Society), Chapter 2: Need and Conditions of Philosophy in Medicine, Quote Page 15, John Bale & Sons, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1915, Evening Round-Up: More Good Stuff Like PEP by Col. Wm. C. Hunter (William Crosbie Hunter), Section: Thought Control, Quote Page 55, Hunter Service, Kansas City, Missouri. (Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1984 March 18, The Sunday Advertiser, Friends – Relationships contribute to wellness, by Anne McKenzie (Advertiser Women’s Editor), Quote Page 50, Column 4, Lafayette, Louisiana. (Newspapers_com)
  5. 1984 March 20, Richland Beacon-News, Charles Roppel delivers convincing address to rapt audience in Rayville by Georgia Pinkston, Quote Page 4, Column 6, Rayville, Louisiana. (Newspapers_com)
  6. Google Groups discussion message, Date: October 31, 2012, Group: sias 2011, From: Uma Victor @hotmail.com, To: victor arputharaj @gmail.com, Subject: FW: The Pilot, (Google Groups Search; Accessed May 3, 2020) link
  7. Tweet, From: niloflower @niloflower, Time: 1:10 AM, Date: December 12, 2013, Text: @Mahtabee: When “i” is replaced with “we” even illness becomes wellness… -Malcolm X (Accessed on twitter.com on May 3, 2020) link
  8. 2015 April 19, The Cincinnati Enquirer, Mariel Hemingway to be at speaker forum by Anne Saker, Quote Page 26A, Column 2, Cincinnati, Ohio. (Newspapers_com)
  9. 2015, Understanding Schizophrenia: A Practical Guide for Patients, Families, and Health Care Professionals by Ravinder Reddy MD, Matcheri S. Keshavan MD, Chapter 14: A Manual for Caregivers, Unnumbered Page, Praeger: An Imprint of ABC-CLIO, Santa Barbara, California. (Google Books Preview)