A classic word confusion

On the 9th, from reader Timothy Young, this screen shot from the Los Angeles Times:


(#1) The original, with the verb enervated

Then, shortly afterwards (in my own screen shot):


(#2) The story with a fresh head, and with the verb invigorated

The verb in #1, from NOAD:

verb enervate: [with object] cause (someone) to feel drained of energy or vitality; weaken.

A verb with which this one is sometimes confused, from their similarity in pronunciation (identity, for American speakers who don’t distinguish pen and pin):

verb innervate: [with object] Anatomy & Zoology supply (an organ or other body part) with nerves.

And three verbs with senses appropriate to the L.A. Times story; enervate is often confused with verbs in this family:

verb energize: [with object] give vitality and enthusiasm to: people were energized by his ideas

verb invigorate: [with object] give strength or energy to: the shower had invigorated her.

verb enliven: [with object] make (something) more entertaining, interesting, or appealing: the wartime routine was enlivened by a series of concerts.

From the Merriam-Webster words site, “Enervate: We’re tired of the confusion surrounding this word”:

There are a number of opportunities to misuse the word enervate, and speakers and writers of the English language have been taking advantage of these opportunities for quite a long time. Johnson O’Connor, writing in The Atlantic Monthly in 1934, alleged that fifty-two percent of the college graduates he had surveyed chose invigorating as the synonym for enervating, rather than the correct weakening.

Why do we have such trouble with enervate? Some people confuse it with innervate, a newer word which is often found used in a physiological context, and which means “to supply with nerves.” Many other people assume that enervate has a more vigorous meaning because it begins with the same letters as energize, enthuse, or enliven.

Enervate has been used in English since at least 1565, when it appears in Thomas Dorman’s A Disproufe of M. Novvelles Reproufe (“…to eneruate and weaken thereby the auctoritye of general councelles…”). It comes from the Latin word enervare, which has a number of meanings, none of which are particularly energetic (unless you count “cut the sinews from” as energetic).

If you are among the people who have difficulty using this word correctly, you may take comfort in the fact that you’re not alone. Evidence shows that enervate is still often used in print as a synonym for [invigorate]. Furthermore, this misuse is not confined to any one area; it may be found across the globe. [cites from Toronto, Liverpool, Manawatu (New Zealand)]

It’s not just the initial spelling EN-. ENERVATE also has the -NERV- of nerve, which is available in at least two relevant senses:

noun nerve (often one’s nerve): [a] a person’s steadiness, courage, and sense of purpose when facing a demanding situation: an amazing journey that tested her nerves to the full | the army’s commanders were beginning to lose their nerve | I got up the nerve to ask Miss Kinnian to have dinner with me. [b] informal impudence or audacity: he had the nerve to insult my cooking | [in singular]: you’ve got a nerve coming here.

Anyone might reason that, given its parts, enervate ought to mean ‘give purpose or audacity to’. Alas, that’s not the way the history of the word went. Historically, the word doesn’t have the prefix en- ‘put into, supply with’ of encircle or enthrone, but instead the e– variant of ex– ‘take out of, remove from’ of excommunicate. From the point of view of a modern speaker of English, enervate has a bizarre, unexpected meaning ‘weaken’ that you just have to learn from hearing it used this way — but the verb so used is infrequent, while the punchier ‘invigorate’ use (reanalyzed as having en- ‘put into, supply with’ in combination with informal nerve) is now very common — that’s why the M-W words site and other sources complain about it — and will probably maintain itself indefinitely.

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