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!

Click here to read more articles from Word Routes.

Ben Zimmer 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.

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.