June 10, 2014

Do Usage Debates Make You Nauseous?

Several days ago, the Twitter account for the Chicago Manual of Style tweeted, “If you’re feeling sick, use nauseated rather than nauseous. Despite common usage, whatever is nauseous induces nausea.” The relevant entry in Chicago reads,

Whatever is nauseous induces a feeling of nausea—it makes us feel sick to our stomachs. To feel sick is to be nauseated. The use of nauseous to mean nauseated may be too common to be called error anymore, but strictly speaking it is poor usage. Because of the ambiguity of nauseous, the wisest course may be to stick to the participial adjectives nauseated and nauseating.

Though it seems like a straightforward usage tip, it’s based on some dubious motives and one rather strange assumption about language. It’s true that nauseous once meant causing nausea and that it has more recently acquired the sense of having nausea, but causing nausea wasn’t even the word’s original meaning in English. The word was first recorded in the early 17th century in the sense of inclined to nausea or squeamish. So you were nauseous not if you felt sick at the moment but if you had a sensitive stomach. This sense became obsolete in the late 17th century, supplanted by the causing nausea sense. The latter sense is the one that purists cling to, but it too is going obsolete.

I searched for nauseous in the Corpus of Contemporary American English and looked at the first 100 hits. Of those 100 hits, only one was used in the sense of causing nausea: “the nauseous tints and tinges of corruption.” The rest were all clearly used in the sense of having nausea—“I was nauseous” and “it might make you feel a little nauseous” and so on. Context is key: when nauseous is used with people, it means that they feel sick, but when it’s used with things, it means they’re sickening. And anyway, if nauseous is ambiguous, then every word with multiple meanings is ambiguous, including the word word, which has eleven main definitions as a noun in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate. So where’s this ambiguity that Chicago warns of?

The answer is that there really isn’t any. In this case it’s nothing more than a red herring. Perhaps it’s possible to concoct a sentence that, lacking sufficient context, is truly ambiguous. But the corpus search shows that it just isn’t a problem, and thus fear of ambiguity can’t be the real reason for avoiding nauseous. Warnings of ambiguity are often used not to call attention to a real problem but to signal that a word has at least two senses or uses and that the author does not like one of them. Bryan Garner (the author of the above entry from Chicago), in his Modern American Usage, frequently warns of such “skunked” words and usually recommends avoiding them altogether. This may seem like sensible advice, but it seems to me to be motivated by a sense of jealousy—if the word can’t mean what the advice-giver wants it to mean, then no one can use it.

But the truly strange assumption is that words have meaning that is somehow independent of their usage. If 99 percent of the population uses nauseous in the sense of having nausea, then who’s to say that they’re wrong? Who has the authority to declare this sense “poor usage”? And yet Garner says, rather unequivocally, “Whatever is nauseous induces a feeling of nausea.” How does he know this is what nauseous means? It’s not as if there is some platonic form of words, some objective true meaning from which a word must never stray. After all, language changes, and an earlier form is not necessarily better or truer than a newer one. As Merriam-Webster editor Kory Stamper recently pointed out on Twitter, stew once meant “whorehouse”, and this sense dates to the 1300s. The food sense arose four hundred years later, in the 1700s. Is this poor usage because it’s a relative upstart supplanting an older established sense? Of course not.

People stopped using nauseous to mean “inclined to nausea” several hundred years ago, and so it no longer means that. Similarly, most people no longer use nauseous to mean “causing nausea”, and so that meaning is waning. In another hundred years, it may be gone altogether. For now, it hangs on, but this doesn’t mean that the newer and overwhelmingly more common sense is poor usage. The new sense is only poor usage inasmuch as someone says it is. In other words, it all comes down to someone’s opinion. As I’ve said before, pronouncements on usage that are based simply on someone’s opinion are ultimately unreliable, and any standard that doesn’t take into account near-universal usage by educated speakers in edited writing is doomed to irrelevance.

So go ahead and use nauseous. The “having nausea” sense is now thoroughly established, and it seems silly to avoid a perfectly good word just because a few peevers dislike it. Even if you stick to the more traditional “causing nausea” sense, you’re unlikely to confuse anyone, because context will make the meaning clear. Just be careful about people who make unsupported claims about language.

Usage, Words 14 Replies to “Do Usage Debates Make You Nauseous?”
Jonathon Owen
Jonathon Owen


14 thoughts on “Do Usage Debates Make You Nauseous?

    Author’s gravatar

    Thank you , Jonathan. So glad to see common sense prevailing!

    Author’s gravatar

    Hear, hear! Word meaning is determined by usage, not unsubstantiated preferences. Writers are free to use “nauseated” to mean “feeling sick” instead of “nauseous” (and editors should leave it alone). But that doesn’t mean they can demand everyone else dismiss “nauseous” just because they don’t like it. It’s a legitimate usage.

    Author’s gravatar

    “A person who is sick is no more nauseous than a person who has been poisoned is poisonous.” seems at first glance to make sense but, of course, it doesn’t. Poison in this context is a verb, derived from a noun. There is, so far as I know, no verb ‘to nause’.

    ‘context can make the meaning clear, but not necessarily all the time, and when it doesn’t rules must be followed.’ Again, apparently sensible but it doesn’t stand up to real examination. What rules should I follow, for example, when I want to prevent ambiguity in this sentence: ‘My father was posted to Berlin in the 1950s’? I certainly don’t want to risk anyone thinking I mean that he was sent by mail service.

    Author’s gravatar

    It seems commonsensical that a thing is nauseous if it makes one sick to the stomach

    This is just an appeal to your own intuition, which is not analyzable. Can you give me an argument that doesn’t boil down to “I just think it means this”?

    A person who is sick is no more nauseous than a person who has been poisoned is poisonous.

    I think your own example undermines your point. Something that is poisonous does not cause poison; it is poison (or contains poison). In fact, most uses of the suffix -ous do not mean “causing x”; a ferrous compound does not cause iron, and something that is obnoxious does not cause obnox.

    But who are these educated speakers, and how universal are they?

    They are writers and speakers from a variety of genres, including newspapers, magazines, novels, and nonfiction books. If you want to know more, you can certainly explore COCA for yourself. As for how universal they are, I already answered that in my post.

    There seems to be a majority of educated speakers, and editors, who adhere to the rule.

    You seem to be pulling this out of thin air. I have numbers to back up my assertion. Do you?

    Yes, context can make the meaning clear, but not necessarily all the time, and when it doesn’t rules must be followed.

    If your context can’t make your meaning clear, then you’ve probably got problems that are bigger than a single word.

    Again, we have opposing opinions, but it seems that you go by the dictum: “rules are meant to be broken”.

    Not at all. I just believe in critically examining the rules to see if they’re valid or not.

    Author’s gravatar

    I suppose we could go over every word that has more than one meaning and delete them from our lexicons but it would be tiresome and unnecessary, surely? Perhaps we could agree that those of us who are happy with the disputed meaning of nauseous are just revolting.

    Author’s gravatar

    Richard, I am hoping I can save you some heartburn in the future. When your argument is “there seems to be a majority of educated speakers, and editors, who adhere to the rule,” you’ve actually got no argument at all. I learned this the hard way yesterday when I swore “waft” was pronounced “wayft.” Turns out, even thought I was sure that people say “wayft,” it just ain’t so. Sure sucks when intuition bites you in the butt.

    Author’s gravatar

    Jake, why would you save me heartburn?

    First: we’re not discussing pronunciation; we’re discussing proper usage.
    Second: the majority of educated speakers adhere to the rules in expository writing. Do they make mistakes, of course, as we all do, and that’s why there are proofreaders and editors.

      Author’s gravatar

      I’m not sure that expository means what you think it means. Narrowing the field to expository writing would remove the bulk of English literature from consideration, surely.

      I was thinking about your poison/poisonous analogy and wondered whether you would care to explain how it relates to, for example, suspicious, conscious, jealous, ambitious, anxious, cautious, generous and, as it relates to a feeling of sickness, bilious.

      Author’s gravatar

      the majority of educated speakers adhere to the rules in expository writing.

      It depends on which rules you’re talking about. If it’s the rule that the basic word order in English is subject-verb-object, then yes; if it’s the rule that nauseous only means “causing nausea” and not “having nausea”, then the answer is clearly no.

    Author’s gravatar

    The American edition of Oxford Dictionaries Online has a usage note, where they refer to the traditional difference between “nauseous” and “nauseated”, but say that nowadays “the use of nauseous to mean ‘affected with nausea’ is so common that it is generally considered to be standard.”

    Interestingly, they didn’t seem to feel the need to put this into the British version. I’ve just checked six British online dictionaries and they all give the ‘feeling sick’ meaning as their first definition. I may be wrong, but I don’t think there is any controversy over this in British English.

    Author’s gravatar

    Jonathon, I did not implement the rule; I just comply with it.

    Right. And my whole point is that the rule doesn’t make sense anymore and that compliance with it is unnecessary.

    Actually my example is originally not mine. It’s Theodore Bernstein’s from his book, “The Careful Writer”.

    Jonathan, I truly don’t understand what your saying. I never said that something “that is poisonous does not cause poison” Your distorting what I said and by doing so you’re agreeing with me.

    You said, “A person who is sick is no more nauseous than a person who has been poisoned is poisonous.” The argument here seems to be that -ous has a particular meaning which is obvious from words like poisonous, and that meaning is not being used in the newer sense of nauseous. (If this is not your argument, please clarify.) The problem is that -ous has a very broad meaning that is not limited to “causing x”; in fact, most uses of -ous that I can find don’t have the same meaning that it does in the traditional sense of nauseous.

    Additionally, I don’t see how you can truly not understand what I’m saying and then say that I’m agreeing with you. It seems like it’d have to be one or the other.

    No, I’m not pulling it out of thin air, but realistically how can I have numbers to back up my claim? Let’s be serious.

    Do a corpus search like I did. It’s not that hard. You’re the one making the claim, so the burden of proof is on you.

    Author’s gravatar

    I was sick last night (or was I ill?). Today I still feel queasy. ‘Nauseous’ is not a word I would naturally use in either meaning. If I did want to use some form of that word, I would use ‘nauseated’ or ‘nauseating’, which are unambiguous.
    I just checked a dictionary; ‘queasy’ predates ‘nauseous’ by about a century.

    Author’s gravatar

    PS I just checked Google Ngrams. ‘Nauseous’ has taken a big drop since 1800, while ‘nauseated’ and ‘nauseating’ have risen slightly and ‘queasy’ has gone from 4th to 1st, from 1920 and especially from 1975 to the present.

    Author’s gravatar

    Actually, you could argue that there is ambiguity. Case in point: in my lexicon “nauseous” primarily means “nauseated”. When I hear or see an object described as nauseous, I don’t interpret it as “causing nausea” precisely, but something subtly different, a sort of figurative usage whereby the object is said to induce nausea to those particularly sensitive to such a thing. Like when an place is said to be claustrophobic, meaning that it can induce claustrophobia. In fact “the nauseous tints and tinges of corruption.” is exactly that type of thing. If you change it to “the nauseating tints and tinges of corruption,” that’s a subtle change in meaning to my mind. Something more literal, like a nauseous smell, while I would probably understand it, sounds wrong to me.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.