Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

Mailbag Friday: Feeling "Nauseous"

Last month a usage dispute broke out in the comments section here on the Visual Thesaurus. Our "Evasive Maneuvers" columnist Mark Peters described a friend who "started feeling nauseous." Two commenters objected to this use of nauseous, saying that the word properly describes someone or something that is sickening, and that the word Mark should have used is nauseated. Who's right?

The answer is a complex one, because the history of the word nauseous, along with the related forms nauseated and nauseating, is surprisingly intricate. The earliest recorded appearance of the word is in the very first monolingual dictionary of English, Robert Cawdrey's A Table Alphabeticall. Cawdrey's dictionary was first published in 1604 (more than a century before Samuel Johnson was even born!), and by the third edition of 1613, his list of words had expanded to include nauseous, which he defined as "loathing or disposed to vomit." This particular meaning, which can describe a characteristically squeamish person (or the person's stomach), didn't last past the 17th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Not long after Cawdrey, another meaning of nauseous came into currency: "causing nausea," dated to 1628. This meaning stuck around and came to be seen as the traditionally correct interpretation of the word, used to describe disgusting things to taste or smell. Later on in the 17th century, this meaning began to be extended more generally to things that are repulsive or offensive, regardless of whether they literally cause nausea.

But Cawdrey's squeamish sense of nauseous ended up returning to the language, albeit with a bit of a twist. Rather than meaning "prone to nausea," the newer meaning was "affected with nausea" — a particular sensation of having an unsettled stomach rather than a susceptibility to feel that way. This is the meaning that has become contentious for the prescriptively minded in recent decades.

But just how old is the "affected with nausea" sense of nauseous? It's been around longer than you might think. In Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage (MWDEU to its friends), E. Ward Gilman says that this meaning only came to the attention of the Merriam-Webster word-watchers in 1949, when a letter to the editor complained about such a usage in the Saturday Review. That was the earliest citation in the OED too, until I did some searching a few years ago and found examples all the way back to 1885.

My antedating didn't last for long: on his blog Motivated Grammar, Gabe Doyle, a graduate student in linguistics at the University of California, San Diego, took the usage back another few decades. As Google Book Search reveals, the following quote appeared in the Supplements to the Connecticut Courant on Feb. 21, 1857: "Then the relaxant influence of lobelia made her feel nauseous, and nausea is a suitable antidote to ugliness, softening down the passions in a most surprising manner."

So even though nauseous in the "affected with nausea" sense has been lurking under the radar since the mid-19th century, it took until the mid-20th century for someone to assert that this meaning was wrong. MWDEU observes that this sense of the word became a bugaboo for American usage guides after Theodore Bernstein griped about it in his 1958 book, Watch Your Language. British usage guides, on the other hand, seem indifferent to the dispute.

You can read more about the twisted history of nauseous, nauseating, and nauseated in the MWDEU entry (which runs to more than two pages), but the take-home message is a clear one: there is no firm basis for the claim that the word nauseous can only mean "causing nausea." For much of the word's history it has had many meanings (it's polysemous, as semanticists say), and to limit it to just one sense flies in the face of the historical evidence.

The problem now, however, is that sufficient numbers of prescriptivists disparage the "affected with nausea" meaning, while those who use the word in that manner may be unfamiliar with the traditional "causing nausea" meaning. In other words, it has become a skunked term, as Bryan Garner calls it in his Modern American Usage: either way you use it, somebody is probably going to be unhappy.

In previous Word Routes columns we've discussed other skunked terms like nonplussed, bemused, and enormity. The case of nauseous is slightly different, in that there are at least other related forms that no one disagrees about: everybody can accept that nauseated means "affected with nausea" and nauseating means "causing nausea." Interestingly, as MWDEU notes, even for those who insist that nauseous should only mean "causing nausea," the word nauseating is much more frequently used in this sense, especially in its figurative extension to things that are merely disgusting and not literally vomit-inducing.

So if you want to avoid raised eyebrows on either side of the nauseous divide, simply use nauseated or nauseating, depending on the context. But as much as it might irk prescriptivists, the writing is on the wall: nauseous has decidedly joined up with nauseated rather than nauseating in popular usage. For some, the very idea is just plain sickening.

Do you have your own question about the history of a word or phrase that you'd like to have discussed in a future Mailbag Friday? Click here and let us know!


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Ben Zimmer is executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com. He is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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Comments from our users:

Friday March 6th 2009, 9:33 AM
Comment by: Jan Freeman (MA)
I'm surprised so many people still object to nauseous=nauseated; in real life (as opposed to copy-editor life) "nauseous" seems universal. Only slightly off topic: When I linked here I (literally) had another screen open to the entry for "sick" from Maximilian Schele de Vere's 1872 book "Americanisms," and I thought a bit of it would make a nice footnote to this discussion:

"It is curious to notice how sickness of the stomach changed in England first into nausea, which soon became vulgar and gave way to throwing up; this also fell in disfavor, and vomit was substituted, as it is used in the Bible; in its turn this gave way to puking, when the great king, with knee-buckles, silk-stockings, and gold-headed canes, also gave [the word] pukes to high-bred matrons and fastidious belles, some fifty years ago. This also was soon banished; but as people might get rid of the word but could not free themselves of the thing, they turned once more to their first love, and sickness was restored to favor."
Friday March 6th 2009, 1:56 PM
Comment by: Marian C. (Murphys, CA)
An English teacher once corrected my usage of "nauseous" taking great pains to explain it to me. Since then I have never used "Nauseous" in the sense of feeling ill. I am too old to change meanings now and wonder why the word police routinely accept the rules we want to change. I know there is a long history on the meaning of these words, but I fail to understand why a good explanation such as my teacher gave me isn't good enough. This world of no boundaries is not easy to understand. Make up your own rules seems to work for many. Guess I'm a crabby old lady earlier than I expected to be.
Friday March 6th 2009, 2:31 PM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
Marian C.: I'm curious about the "good explanation" that your English teacher gave, since most of the usage guidelines I've seen on this are quite perfunctory: this is what nauseous means, no explanation given. If you try to break the word down into nausea + -ous, where the suffix -ous is understood as meaning "full of," then isn't "full of nausea" pretty close to "affected with nausea"? I'm just wondering if there's some commonsense argument supporting the idea that nauseous can only mean "causing nausea," beyond the unenlightening "That's just what the rule is."
Friday March 6th 2009, 4:02 PM
Comment by: Elissa S. (New York, NY)
My way of remembering the difference between nauseous and nauseated:

"I'm so nauseated, I feel like puking."

vs.

"I'm so nauseous, I am puke-like."
Saturday March 7th 2009, 2:17 PM
Comment by: Marian C. (Murphys, CA)
Thanks for your response, Ben.I must have used it in a sentence as in "I was nauseous." She told me I was saying I was sickening, as in making other people sick. She suggested instead beginning my sentence with the word nausea, as in "Nausea overcame me." After that it seemed clear to me, and at age 16 I didn't require more explanation. I still love words in all forms, which is why I read the Visual Thesaurus page and occasionally chime in. I read your work frequently because I always learn something.
Saturday March 7th 2009, 11:14 PM
Comment by: Kathleen C.
I straddle this fence. On the one hand, my mother was a teacher, and very persnickety about our English usage; "nauseated" was the only proper word for that unpleasant feeling. On the other hand, in college ALL the New Yorkers used "nauseous" to mean the same thing. I decided it must be a regional usage and determined not to be a snob about it. Haven't changed my mind since then.

Come ON, people, one of the things we love about English is its free-wheeling decentralization! (On the other hand, "nucular", as pronounced by both Ike and W, still makes me squirm.)
Sunday March 8th 2009, 6:53 AM
Comment by: Donald B. (Jamesville, NY)
This is another example of two words about which a clear distinction was made in our early education (I'm in my 7th decade). While the blurring of the distinction is jarring to my ear, I am most fascinated with it for two reasons: 1) It is such a clear example of the ebb and flow of meaning of a word through history (See Sol Steinmetz: Semantic Antics), and 2) The "jarring" I experience (and Marian C, too, it appears) demonstrates the power of early education. (Raise up a child in the path he should go, and when he is old he will not depart therefrom [or something like that!])
Sunday March 8th 2009, 12:05 PM
Comment by: Clarence W.Top 10 Commenter
It would take a uniquely self-aware person to proclaim "I am nauseous" and mean they caused nausea in others.
Sunday March 8th 2009, 6:33 PM
Comment by: William S. (Los Angeles, CA)
In medicine, particularly among those practitioners who treat migraine headache, the nauseated/nauseating usage is dependably unambiguous and carries the day. It would be the height of folly for a defendent doctor to have his/her medical notes read in a malpractice court revealing that that doctor had characterized his patient's (the plaintiff) state as nauseous!
Sunday March 8th 2009, 8:28 PM
Comment by: William S. (Los Angeles, CA)
Anyone who has watched an Alastair Sim movie would immediately know what the word means. He was the king of nonplussness.
Monday March 9th 2009, 10:57 PM
Comment by: Amy R. (Chicago, IL)
One factor promoting "nauseous" used to mean "nauseated" is that the word just plain sounds sick. Say it out loud—don't you feel a little queasy just uttering "nauseous"? It has the same rolling feeling as a queasy stomach.

I have a hard time letting myself say the word because I, too, learned that it meant "nauseating," but now I'll quit feeling so acutely superior to those who use "nauseous."
Wednesday March 11th 2009, 4:38 PM
Comment by: Maxey B. (Midland, PA)
In a group of people cramped together as in a bus or airplane when one person becomes nauseated the nauseous smell can cause others of the group to become nauseated, an uncomfortable situation originated by that nauseous individual who pushed the dominoe.
Friday March 13th 2009, 12:10 PM
Comment by: Marian C. (Murphys, CA)
The sentence given by Maxey B. is easily understood and makes the case for not being confused anymore. Well done.
Saturday March 21st 2009, 2:43 PM
Comment by: Beryl S. (Schroeder, MN)
Guilty as stated. My British mother used to ask me if I were feeling nauseous so, until this post, that is how I used it as well. Maxey B's sentence makes the correct usage a delight to remember.

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The Evasive Maneuvers column that sparked the debate over "nauseous."
President Obama's use of the word "enormity" got people talking.
Two more skunked terms, "nonplussed" and "bemused," are put under the microscope.