If I asked you for a word that’s the opposite of wealth, you’d probably say poverty. But wealth has another antonym that’s both more obscure and a more perfect etymological parallel: illth.
Illth was coined by the English writer and critic John Ruskin in Unto This Last, a critique of political economy published in 1860. Ruskin put the word between quotation marks toward the end of a nearly 200-word sentence that begins with a long description of wealth and slides into a parenthetical comment that “we ought to have a correspondent term.” Illth it is.
John Ruskin (1819-1900), via the Ruskin Museum
Louis Menand puts it a lot more succinctly in his recent New Yorker review of The Turning Point, a new biography of Charles Dickens by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst. Illth, Menand writes, “is the underside of wealth, the damage that change leaves in its wake, the human cost of progress.” And illth is the subtext of Dickens’s novel Bleak House—that’s the one about the interminable Jarndyce v. Jarndyce trial, and the one that the new biography focuses on.
Wealth is, of course, a much older word. It first appears in Middle English, a blend of Old English well or possibly weal (one of whose meanings is “prosperity,” and which also survives in “commonweal”) and the very common Old English noun-making suffix -th. (Death, mirth, health, dearth, strength, truth, et al.) Ill was borrowed from Scandinavian languages around 1200; for several centuries it usually meant “depraved,” “immoral,” or “wicked.” (Think of phrases like “ill will” or “for good or ill.”) Then, around 1500, it took on the sense of “unhealthy,” which is how we mostly use it today.
Illth, then, is an excellent coinage: a name that fits the crime. (It’s the sort of word that Dickens himself—a notable coiner of words*—might have invented himself if Ruskin hadn’t beaten him to it.) Whereas poverty comes to us from Latin via French, illth has a sturdy British Isles pedigree, what with that -th phoneme that drives non-native speakers nuts. And look at the word. So skinny, so attenuated, so … sick. It lacks a single descending letter—no p, no g, no y—to give it a grounded feeling. If you squint a little, you might even see it as Lilith, the name of the Old Testament she-demon who was supposedly Lucifer’s first wife. Or maybe Adam’s. (And, yes, the namesake of Lilith Fair. And the name of the first Mrs. Frasier Crane on “Frasier.” And of many other not-so-nice characters in popular culture as well.)
It’s a little icky to say, too. It rhymes with, and perhaps evokes, filth. To pronounce it, your lips hover slackly while your tongue twists around your teeth.
A terrific word, as I said. No wonder George Bernard Shaw thought it was swell, and used it as a section heading in an 1889 essay, “The Economic Basis of Socialism.” And no wonder it crops up regularly, if not frequently enough, in 21st-century writing.
Here’s one of the best commentaries I’ve found. “The Negative-Sum Economy” was written by John Michael Greer, described in his Wikipedia biography as “an author and druid,” and published in September 2021 in Ecosophia, whose tagline is “toward an ecological spirituality”:
As wealth is to weal (and well and will), illth is to ill. To have illth is to be burdened by things you don’t need and don’t want, things that harm your well-being and prevent you from doing what you like. Every economy produces both wealth and illth: that is to say, every economy produces goods and services, but also harms and hindrances. The relative proportion of wealth and illth varies across time, for reasons we’ll discuss later. The distribution of wealth and illth is the great problem of economics. One essential reason modern economists make bad predictions and bad policy so reliably is that they ignore half of this problem, and pretend that the production and distribution of illth isn’t relevant to their discipline.