The Grammarphobia Blog

You give me fever

Q: Would the adjective be “feverous” of “feverish” in these lines from a poem I’m writing: “tree branches wave arms / cooling the feverous spell”? The meaning is hot, as in the weather.

A: I’d stick with “feverous” if I were you. It’s perfectly legitimate for a poet to use an unusual, off-beat, or archaic adjective in a passage like that one.

Although “feverous” isn’t common in current usage, it was once used routinely and interchangeably with “feverish.” Both “feverous” and “feverish” first appeared in print (in fact, in the same book) in 1398, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED defines “feverous” as “ill of fever; affected by fever” or “apt to cause a fever.” Shakespeare used it in Measure for Measure (1603), where Isabella says to Claudio: “I quake, lest thou a feavorous life shouldst entertaine.”

The latest citations in the OED are all from the 19th century. Here’s Tennyson, in a line from a sickbed scene in his poem “Enoch Arden” (1864): “After a night of feverous wakefulness.”

“Feverish” was used the same way as “feavorous” for the first few hundred years, but in the 1630s “feaverish” gained a figurative meaning: “excited, fitful, restless, now hot now cold.”

It may be that this added dimension is responsible for its eventual domination over “feverous,” which is now rarely used. (“Feverous” doesn’t appear at all in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th ed. It’s listed in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed., simply as meaning “feverish.”)

So if you’d like to give your poem an archaic flavor and restrict the meaning to “hot,” then “feverous” would be appropriate. “Feverous” merely means hot, though “feverish” has that added meaning of restless and fitful. (The author of the poem is Merilee Kaufman.)

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