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Monday, September 26, 2011

When luxury and indolence were Bad Things...

Do not use "enervate" when what you mean is "energize". You could unwittingly insult someone if you get this wrong, for instance if you told them a talk they just gave or a class they just taught "enervated" you, for "enervate" means "sap of energy or strength", or, as the OED puts it (with a rather Victorian tone of disapproval of self-indulgence):

"To weaken physically (a person or animal); now only of agencies that impair nervous ‘tone’, as luxury, indolence, hot or malarious climates."

The word comes from the Latin ēnervāre (to extract the sinews of, weaken), from ē out + nervus sinew, and was originally used to mean "cut the hamstrings of a horse". Now, my hamstrings take a beating in my ballet classes, but for all that, I find my classes energizing rather than enervating (probably because of the lack of that character-sapping indolence!).


  1. Somewhere, on the outskirts of the Roman Empire, "enervate" is "annoy", "irritate".

    I thought it was like that because the light of the centre of the world got tired till it reached its outskirts ...

    Apparently, it's the French who use it like that. Or is it my misunderstanding, caused by an homonym ?

  2. Yes, énerver means "annoy" in French. This was a much later development though.


About Me

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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.