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Friday, April 18, 2014

It makes me sick!

Seeing as we are all about to scarf down way too much chocolate, I thought today would be an appropriate time to look at the word ... nausea. And more specifically, its derivatives -- nauseous, nauseating, and nauseated -- which are surprisingly contentious.

So... nausea. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it is derived via Latin from a Greek word meaning specifically "seasickness": nausia, from naus 'ship' (the same word that gave us "nautical"). We borrowed it from Latin in the early 1400s, and it managed to fight off a couple of contenders, nausity and nausiness (really I don't make these things up) for the crown of queasiness (a word, alas, of unknown origin).

Just as "beauteous" means "full of beauty" and "bounteous" means "full of bounty", it's not surprising that we created an adjective "nauseous" meaning "full of nausea, inclined to nausea".  This is the first recorded meaning of "nauseous" in English, in 1613. Why is Wordlady resorting to boldface, you wonder? Stay tuned. 

In the beginning, "nauseous" was used to describe those suffering from an ongoing state of nausea, but by the 17th century,  "nauseousness" was being used to describe intermittent instances of intestinal upset, and we have evidence from as early as 1826 for "nauseous" in the sense of "temporarily affected with nausea":

1826 Sholto Percy Mechanics' Magazine and Journal of Science, Arts, and Manufactures, Volume 5 p.10 
custom never does away with that nauseous feeling we have in the ear and on the glands of the neck, on being let down in a diving bell.

1839 British and Foreign Medical Review: Or Quarterly Journal ...

In speaking of the effect of bloodletting, Mr. Lizars says that " the patient feels nauseous and sick even to vomiting:"

So, "nauseous" has been used for a very long time in the sense "affected by nausea". But, amazingly, someone in the mid 20th century (but not before then) took it into their head to condemn this usage, saying that "nauseous" could only mean "causing nausea". 

"Causing nausea" (a nauseous smell etc.) is indeed another sense of "nauseous", one that arose shortly after the "full of nausea" sense.  But it's actually a rather odd development for a word ending in the -ous suffix, which usually means "characterized by, full of", not "causing". The only other similar word I can think of is "vertiginous", which means both "affected by vertigo" and "causing vertigo". "Nauseating", which has meant unambiguously "causing nausea" for the entire four centuries of its life, is really a better choice for this sense.

What did the 20th-century pundits say we should use instead of "nauseous" when we are feeling a little sick to our stomach? Nauseated. Well, surprise, when "nauseated" entered the language, it meant, not "affected by nausea" but... "causing nausea": 

1660   R. Allestree Gentlemans Calling 173   Forsaking all the unsatisfying nauseated pleasures of Luxury.
So the original senses of "nauseous" and "nauseated" were the exact opposite of what the usage commentators said were the "correct" usages of the words.  

Any decent current reference dictionary nowadays gives "affected with nausea" as the primary sense of "nauseous". Some usage guides try to maintain the artificial distinction that has never existed in usage and was made up about 60 years ago. Really, if anyone tries to correct you for saying "I feel nauseous" and to explain that you should say "I feel nauseated", they deserve to have you throw up on their shoes before they can finish their little speech.

Well, I hope I haven't put you off your Easter dinner. I'm off to get some Gravol now. Helpful travel tip for non-Canadian Wordlady readers: that's what we call the anti-nauseant you call Dramamine. It's a registered trade name, but we all use it generically. I hope you have no need to use this knowledge if you visit our fair land, but if you do, you can thank Wordlady for knowing what to call it.

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  1. Hello,

    Could you remind us, please, how exactly does the suffix "ous" mean "full of" ?

    Thank you.

    1. < classical Latin -ōsus (-a , -um ), forming adjectives, with the sense of ‘abounding in, full of, characterized by, of the nature of’, e.g. cōpiōsus copious adj., dolōrōsus dolorous adj., fāmōsus famous adj., generōsus generous adj. and n., glōriōsus glorious adj., spīnōsus spinous adj., viscōsus viscous adj., etc.

  2. Thanks for this, Wordlady. It had never occurred to me that there was a relationship between "nausea" and "nautical," but how very logical that there is! Unfortunately, as regards usage, Chicago 16 (i.e., Garner) is still noting the silly distinction you so rightly debunk here: "The use of nauseous to mean nauseated may be too common to be called error anymore, but strictly speaking it is poor usage." Bah!

    1. Bah! indeed. What on earth does "strictly speaking it is poor usage" mean??? WHY????


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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.