nauseous

Yesterday’s Zippy:

“Contentlessness is the 14th level of Japanese humor” is nice, but here I’m after Griffy’s peeve about nauseous (rather than nauseated). Griffy has lots of company in his peeving, but the facts are against him.

Complaints about nauseous ‘sickened’ are something of a dead horse, but I’ll beat it a bit more anyway.

I’ll start with readers’ queries, to Michael Quinion on his World Wide Words site in 2000 and to Mignon Fogarty (“Grammar Girl”) in 2007.

From Quinion’s site:

Q From John David Hamilton: For many years I have been irritated by the misuse of the word nauseous which is all too often used when the user means nauseated. I was taught that when one is sick one feels nauseated but is often nauseous to others. I first heard this used by well-off but poorly educated New Yorkers but it has spread everywhere. Can you explain please and tell me whether nauseous in its newly offensive use is acceptable?

A There has been a lot of discussion about this in recent decades, and many American dictionaries flag the disputed senses in usage notes. As you say, the distinction that has been taught is that nauseous means “causing nausea” but nauseated means “feeling or suffering from nausea”. So if a person says “I am nauseous”, a purist might reply “Yes, you are; misusing words like that makes your listeners feel sick”. (This comment is best relayed from a distance.)

Quinion goes on to note changes in usage and to cite MWDEU‘s conclusion about nauseous:

Any handbook that tells you that nauseous cannot mean ‘nauseated’ is out of touch with the contemporary language. In current usage it seldom means anything else”. The new edition of the American Heritage Dictionary concurs: “Since there is a lot of evidence to show that nauseous is widely used to mean ‘feeling sick,’ it appears that people use nauseous mainly in the sense in which it is considered incorrect”.

But, as MDEU points out, there is subtlety in the way it is used. When nauseous means “feeling physically sick”, it usually appears after a verb such as feel, become, get or grow: “Doctor, I’m feeling nauseous”. When it means “causing nausea”, it is much more likely to be used before a noun: “To conceal the nauseous flavour of the raw spirit they added aromatic herbs and spices”. Much of the older sense of nauseous, both literal and figurative, is in the process of being transferred to nauseating: “To this, with nauseating smarminess, he immediately attested”, “The children looked a little green from the nauseating fairground rides”. Nauseated, to judge from the citation evidence, now seems to be less common than either.

From Fogarty’s site:

Hi Grammar Girl. This is Brian from Seattle, and I have a question about the word nauseous. I always thought that nauseous meant that you were causing nausea, and that when someone says, “I’m feeling nauseous,” they are causing me to throw up on them. But everyone says it! Everyone says, “I’m feeling nauseous.” And I always thought it was wrong, but movie stars say it and books say it, and maybe I’ve been wrong this entire time. I thought if I’m feeling sick, I’m nauseated. And that big pile of trash on the floor is nauseous, meaning it’s causing me to throw up. Anyway, I think you understand my question, I’d appreciate an answer. Thanks. Bye.

Brian is right! … It’s common to hear people say they’re nauseous when their stomach is upset, but language sticklers hold that nauseous means to induce nausea, whereas nauseated means you feel sick. So when you’re describing how sick you feel, you should say you are nauseated; when you’re describing something that makes you sick, you should call it nauseous. At least that’s how you should do it if you want to be extremely proper. Most usage guides note that the improper use is far more common than the proper use [references to Garner’s Modern American Usage (2003) and to Quinion’s column], which is always a bad sign for a rule. And the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage even goes so far as to say there is no basis for the rule … So it’s likely that the confusion will continue for a while and eventually nobody will object when you say you feel nauseous when you’re sick. Whether that will happen in 20 years or 200 years, I don’t know.

Ben Zimmer in a 3/6/09 column “Feeling ‘Nauseous'” also relies on MWDEU, but is cautious in his recommendations:

… 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.

… 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.

… 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 culture.

Paul Brians’s Common Errors is even more cautious:

Many people say, when sick to their stomachs, that they feel “nauseous” … but traditionalists insist that this word should be used to describe something that makes you want to throw up: something nauseating. They hear you as saying that you make people want to vomit, and it tempers their sympathy for your plight. Better to say you are “nauseated,” or simply that you feel like throwing up.

As on other occasions, I’m not really comfortable with advice to accommodate the passionately ignorant — even just for a while, for the decades or centuries it takes for the people who irrationally object to the usage die off. The problem is that the objections have a cultural life of their own, propagating through the population, so that they’re potentially immortal; the histories of peeving about decimate, literally, and hopefully are not encouraging.

Gabe Doyle took up the nauseous issue on his Motivated Grammar blog in 2008 (in “The Many Forms of Nausea”). After quoting MWDEU

Behind the intense, though relatively recent, controversy over these words is a persistent belief, dear to the hearts of many American commentators, that nauseous has but a single sense: ‘causing nausea.’ There is, however, no basis for this belief.

Doyle comments:

The truth of the matter is that nausea has been quite productively affixed over the years. In addition to nauseous, there’s also nauseated, nauseating, nauseant, nauseation, nauseity, and others. And the ugly truth of the matter is that these words’ meanings have always fluctuated.

… no one reading this blog, or reading anything you’ve ever written, was alive when nauseous took on the “sickened” meaning. The “sickened” meaning has been in use for generations! Sure, it wasn’t the original meaning, but then “sickening” wasn’t the original meaning either. Given that there have been a good deal of changes in the definitions of these words over time, why not just accept that nauseous changed back in the 1850s to have multiple meanings?

The only possibly reasonable opposition to this is that you’re worried about getting confused as to which meaning of nauseous an author intends. But, as the MWDEU explains, the two meanings have different distributions, so it’s almost always clear which one is intended. The full details are in the MWDEU …

and concludes, bracingly:

Nauseous has had two meanings for the past 150 years, both “sickened” and “sickening”. Anyone concerned that having two meanings will lead to terrible confusion is either naive or shedding crocodile tears. If you can’t figure out what “I feel nauseous” is supposed to mean, you’re actively trying to misinterpret it.

(He repeated this judgment in “National Grammar Day 2009: Ten Common Grammar Myths Debunked”, here.)

On the history of the ‘sickened’ sense: OED3 (June 2003) has an older use and then a newer one, appearing in the 19th century and picking up in the mid-20th century:

1. a. Of a person, the stomach, etc.: inclined to sickness or nausea; squeamish. Obs. rare. [cites 1613, 1651, 1678]

b. orig. U.S. Of a person: affected with nausea; having an unsettled stomach; (fig.) disgusted, affected with distaste or loathing.

The cites for 1b are 1885, 1927, 1949, 1955, 1977, 2000, for become nauseous, feel nauseous, and make s.o. nauseous. Doyle found a substantially earlier cite, from 1857, of make s.o. nauseous.

Finally, on the sense development. Back in 2005, Mark Liberman looked at

adjectives that have switched from modifying the cause of an experience to modifying the experiencer. For example, if substance X induces nausea in person Z, then person Z is nauseated and substance X is nauseous; but then, for many people, it’s person Z that is nauseous. Or, if substance X induces addiction in person Z, then person Z is addicted to substance X and substance X is addictive; but then, for some people, person Z is addictive to substance X.

Ben Zimmer pointed out in e-mail to Mark that sometimes the resulting polysemy becomes entirely acceptable, citing uses of doubtful, dubious, and suspicious, adjectives that “were originally applied to the cause of the experience, and slightly later to the experiencer”, and adding uses of hysterical and (in)credulous, after which Mark further expanded the range of sense pairings of experience-cause with experiencer.

The larger point here is that the development of polysemy in nauseous is entirely unsurprising.

One Response to “nauseous”

  1. Geoff Nunberg Says:

    If the sticklers were honest, they would object as well to the pronunciation of ‘nauseous’ with a voiceless fricative, an indication that the synchronic connection to ‘nausea’ is no longer present.

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