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shameless pleading

Nauseous/nauseating/nauseated

The Elements of Silly.

Dear Word Detective: What’s the state-of-the-art on “nauseous”? I was told that it was a synonym for “nauseating,” not “nauseated,” but the Merriam-Webster dictionary seems to have given up on that. I saw it used in no less prestigious a source than The Economist to mean “nauseated.” Not that etymology will ever stand in the way of practice, but I’d at least like to know if this actually a change, or if it was just somebody being pedantic. — Joshua Engel.

Oh boy, a usage question. Let’s see how many people I can tick off this time. If I play my cards right, half my own family won’t be speaking to me when I’m done.

Long story short? The “rule” concerning “nauseous” and “nauseated” that you (and nearly everyone else) encountered in school is without either logical substance or historical justification. It is and always was “just somebody being pedantic” (albeit a lot of somebodies in a lot of grammar books).

It is true that the root of “nauseous” is the Latin “nauseosus,” meaning “causing nausea,” which would tend to buttress the traditional “puce wallpaper is nauseous; people seeing it become nauseated” school of thought. But, as you note, etymology is not destiny, and most of our English words have wandered far from their origins, so the Latin “nauseosus” is not a compelling argument.

A glance at the actual use of “nauseous” in the history of written English leaves the “nauseous means nauseating” camp with a problem. The Oxford English Dictionary dates the “causing nausea” usage to 1628, but lists the meaning “inclined to sickness or nausea; squeamish” to fifteen years earlier, in 1613. So the claim that the “causing nausea” meaning is the pure original meaning won’t fly.

More importantly, most of the objections to the use of “nauseous” to mean “feeling ill” have arisen only since the end of World War II, but (according to the excellent Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage) the actual use of “nauseous” in the supposedly proper “makes-me-sick” sense has dropped sharply in learned prose since before WW II and almost everyone today uses “nauseating.” Even E.B. White, after reciting the standard “rule” about nauseous/nauseated in Strunk & White’s revered Elements of Style (1979), lapsed into using “nauseating” rather than “nauseous” elsewhere in his own book.

As it stands now in the real world, “nauseating” is doing the duty of meaning “causing nausea or disgust,” and “nauseous” is almost always used as a synonym of “nauseated” to mean “feeling sick or disgusted.” The only danger in using “nauseous” to mean “feeling sick” is that you may run into people who are erroneously convinced that the usage is wrong, which brings us to one of those Dirty Harry moments: Are you feeling lucky?

5 comments to Nauseous/nauseating/nauseated

  • donna

    Even E.B. White, after reciting the standard “rule” about nauseous/nauseated in Strunk & White’s revered Elements of Style (1979), lapsed into using “nauseating” rather than “nauseous” elsewhere in his own book.

    What’s wrong with using “nauseating” instead of “nasueous”? I thought the beef was between “naseous” and “nauseated”.

  • seamstress

    donna wrote:
    What’s wrong with using “nauseating” instead of “nauseous”?

    Nothing. If you are not proclaiming that “nauseous” is the word to use when meaning “causing nausea”, that is…

  • Nauseous had two accepted meanings early on, causing nausea, and later, experiencing nausea. Then writers decided to disambiguate nauseous, seemingly creating nauseated for the latter definition of nauseous and using nauseous exclusively with its first definition. Therefore when there was no need for nauseous to continue to mean “affected with nausea” the intention was the have its second definition erased in time thru common usage and then no longer carry the meaning at all. By enforcing this usage rule it should have happened. However, people still used it by its second definition and its second definition did not become obsolete. The problem comes when the ones that had been taught by those strict rules suck with them, as though nauseous had never had its second definition. So sadly it didn’t stop teachers from preferring the disambiguating method of using the two word separately and not allowing nauseous to hold its second meaning. They taught that it had no second meaning so that’s what many people believe today. It’s the same reason we improperly, yet acceptably, say “aren’t I?” and longer have a proper negative conjugation for am. (It was ain’t, by the way. Formed this way so as not to create another unwanted vowel sound that would be produce from the two bilabials(“m” and “n”) preceding the “t”.) Here are the words and their definitions with dates (and reference cites) to confirm the basis of it.

    nauseous
    1604, “inclined to nausea, easily made queasy,” from nausea (q.v.). Sense of “causing nausea or squeamishness” is attested from 1612. (http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?search=nauseous&searchmode=none)

    [of nauseous] The Oxford English Dictionary lists the meaning “inclined to sickness or nausea; squeamish” in 1613 (your cite, and several others I can’t seem to find which cite it was now, of course!)

    And the point…
    nauseated
    1640, “to feel sick, to become affected with nausea,” from pp. stem of L. nauseare, see nausea. In its early life it also had transitive senses of “to reject (food, etc.) with a feeling of nausea” (1646) and “to create a loathing in” (1654). Careful writers use nauseated for “sick at the stomach” and reserve nauseous (q.v.) for “sickening to contemplate.” (http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?search=nauseous&searchmode=none)

  • pamela

    thank you for the essay on the usage of nauseating versus nauseous.

  • John Murray

    Thank you for your nauseating (or is nauseous?) essay on the usage of nauseating versus nauseous. It left me completely nauseated. Exasperated too!

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