“Nauseous” (Standard English’s Evolution)

Louis_6_medicin“‘Nauseous‘ doesn’t refer to being sick,” my 9th-grade English teacher told his class. “It refers to something that makes you sick.”

He sounded more apologetic than commanding; he didn’t seem to believe this “rule” any more than we did. Yet here we are in 2013, and the “nauseous/nauseated” beef remains. Type “common grammar mistakes” into Google, and the first result (a list titled “20 Common Grammar Mistakes That (Almost) Everyone Makes“) contains this nugget:

Contrary to almost ubiquitous misuse, to be “nauseous” doesn’t mean you’ve been sickened: it actually means you possess the ability to produce nausea in others. e.g., That week-old hot dog is nauseous. When you find yourself disgusted or made ill by a nauseating agent, you are actually “nauseated.” e.g., … Stop embarrassing yourself.

Criticizing grammar absolutists is like shooting sleeping fish in a styrofoam barrel; yet I’m disturbed that anyone gives this dated rule credence. In The Accidents of Style: Good Advice on How Not to Write Badly, author Charles Harrington Elster expresses a depressingly common attitude–”this rule is silly, but let’s follow it so not to upset anyone:”

This usage is so common today that it can no longer be called an outright error. But it is still a general misunderstanding–a “peccadillo,” as “Garner’s Modern American Usage” puts it–disapproved of by most modern authorities.

These aren’t “fringe” opinions. Bill Bryson gets into the act. And I have to confess that I have more than once eschewed “nauseous” for “nauseated” when writing. Most people can agree that this rule doesn’t much reflect actual usage, yet many of us are a little skittish about letting it go.

I view Standard English as a dialect (or dialects, really), and as such, it evolves. American Standard English, in my opinion, has shifted over the past century so that “nauseous” refers to the state of being sick to one’s stomach rather that its cause. I can’t imagine there’s much debate about this, unless you think that “Standard English” has no relationship to spoken language.

It doesn’t require in-depth experiments with giant corpora to come to these conclusions. A mere search through the past three years of the New York Times produces 49 usages of “nauseous.*” Only 10% of the these use the conservative meaning. It’s not just informal quotations, either. “Nauseous,” meaning “sick to one’s stomach,” appears in journalistic contexts as well. Here is a book review by Janet Maslin:

Ms. Brown deals seriously and convincingly with the illness, but she also uses it as a handy plot hook. So the pregnant Cordy is as nauseous as her ailing mother.

Here is Alexander Kumar in the Times’ science blog:

I will never forget that day — waking up unusually short of breath, later feeling nauseous and struggling for oxygen in between bites of lunch.

And for good measure, here’s a disinterested article about the Los Angeles bus system:

They hold their coffee cup several inches away from their seats — the start-stop of the bus means the coffee could spill at any moment. They do not read because the lurching bus too easily makes them nauseous.

As I said, some Times writers still use “nauseous” in the older sense. But it’s clear that at least some of the papers’ proofreading staff (no grammatical anarchists) accept “nauseous” in the way most Americans understand it. And why not? If we don’t accept the evolution of Standard English, we cause confusion, not clarity. If we actively try to preserve century-old definitions, how can we communicate to the readers of today?

*If you do try this yourself, you’ll notice that NYTimes.com’s search will say it yields “300+” examples. I’m not sure why this is, since you only view 49. I can’t tell if the list is entirely complete or not, but even if it’s a sample, it’s a useful one.

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About Ben Trawick-Smith

Ben Trawick-Smith began his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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15 Responses to “Nauseous” (Standard English’s Evolution)

  1. Caitlin C. says:

    This was the first time I’d ever heard of nauseous being used to describe something that makes you sick. In my family we always used the word nauseating to describe something truly odious.

    • m.m. says:

      same with most speakers ive encountered here aswell; something that makes you sick makes you nauseous, as that something is nauseating

      for some reason this reminds me of the progressive passive taking over the passival

  2. Nico says:

    I’ve always known there was a prescriptivist difference between ‘nauseous’ and ‘nauseated’, but I can honestly say that I’ve never been a stickler for the supposed correct meaning considering popular usage says otherwise. I personally have never come across any confusion whatsoever for using ‘nauseous’ to mean sick or queasy.

    I also tend to say ‘nauseating’ when something makes me sick (or figuratively disgusts me).

    • Nico says:

      Another similar example of word confusion (and semantic shift) would be the difference between ‘jealous’ and ‘envious’. According to Standard English, there’s a clear difference between the two, but I’d say in most cases when people say they’re ‘jealous’ of someone, they’re really ‘envious’. True jealousy isn’t quite as common as envy in everyday life.

  3. Jan Freeman says:

    Ben Zimmer did a nice piece on this in 2009 at the Visual Thesaurus website. Can I link here? We’ll see: http://www.visualthesaurus.com/cm/wordroutes/mailbag-friday-feeling-nauseous/

  4. Randy says:

    I’m aware of this distinction, but I don’t recall ever having seen it used in the old way. Perhaps I have, but I missed it because I’m accustomed to the new way.

    Is there another word of the form [X]eous meaning causing someone to be [X]eated? I can’t think of one at the moment. The first word of that form that comes to mind is “homogeneous”, but this doesn’t mean causing to be homogeneated. In fact, homogeneated isn’t even a word.

    • Patrick Lane says:

      “Suspicious” has retained both meanings since it first appeared. You can see something suspicious that then makes you feel suspicious.

      And the OED has writers using “nauseous” meaning inclined to feel nauseated in the 17th century (approximately when the word comes into English), so while the “causing nausea” was indeed the dominant definition (in writing at least) for the next two centuries, the current common usage (of the last hundred years) hardly comes out of the blue, much less out of error.

      • Randy says:

        Thanks!

        Given that both meanings of “nauseous” existed pretty much from the get-go, one wonders if this is another item for the pile of grammar things that weren’t wrong until someone decided they would be, along with ending a sentence with a preposition and splitting an infinitive.

  5. dw says:

    This is reminiscent of the supposed distinction between “healthy” and “healthful”.

    Incidentally, both “healthful” and “nauseous” are pretty much unused in British English (or were when I lived there 15 years ago). I think that most BrE speakers would just say “I feel sick”, or “I’m about to be sick”, to mean that they are about to vomit.

    • Nico says:

      Going along with it, I think because I’m aware of the debated distinction of the two words that I tend to avoid it altogether. Besides, it’s a lot more fun and crude to say, “I’m about to toss my cookies/blow chunks/puke/hurl/barf,” than just “I’m nauseous/nauseated.”

      • Nico says:

        Actually, feeling queasy is never fun, so I didn’t think that all the way through, haha. I guess I’m just a fan of being colorful with my language.

  6. “If we don’t accept the evolution of Standard English, we cause confusion, not clarity. If we actively try to preserve century-old definitions, how can we communicate to the readers of today?”

    Nicely said. I think this is a point that isn’t made nearly often enough. I find it puzzling how usage authorities like Garner often insist on avoiding certain uses even though they’re admittedly ubiquitous. What’s really wrong with a usage that 90 percent or more of your readers will understand and find unobjectionable?

  7. Kendra says:

    nauseous ˈnɔ:sɪəs ♫ , -z- ♫ adjective. e17.
    1 Affected with nausea, sick, nauseated. Formerly also, inclined to nausea. e17.
    P. Monette ”The drug made him nauseous.”
    2 Causing nausea; offensive to the taste or smell; fig. loathsome, disgusting, repulsive. e17.
    M. Wesley ”Mylo took the nauseous brew.”

    {SOED}

  8. Karen says:

    Isn’t the word to describe it “nauseating?”

  9. Pingback: Language Blog Roundup: WOTY news, ’tis, shelfies | Wordnik

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