The Grammarphobia Blog

What, me worry?

Q: Lately I’ve noticed the use by broadcast journalists of “worrying” as an adjective: “It’s a very worrying situation in Afghanistan.” My understanding is that the proper word to use here would be “worrisome.” Am I right?

A: I’m sorry to have to tell you that “worrying” is a much older adjective than “worrisome,” and has every claim to legitimacy.

The adjective “worrying” entered English, as far as we know, in the early 1600s. It was first recorded, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, in Philemon Holland’s translation of Camden’s Britain (1610): “A greater rabble of worrying freebutters.”

The OED says that back then the word meant “given to harrying or raiding.” This warlike usage grew out of the earliest meaning of the verb “worry,” first recorded in the 700s: “to kill (a person or animal) by compressing the throat; to strangle.”

After undergoing many changes along the way, the verb “worry” was first used to refer to mental distress in 1822. And the modern meaning of “worrying” as an adjective (“harassing; distressing to the mind or spirits”) was first recorded soon afterward, in 1826.

Dickens must have liked the word, because he used it in 1837 in The Pickwick Papers (“There are few things more worrying than sitting up for somebody, especially if that somebody be at a party”) and in 1853 in Bleak House (“Whatever the sound is, it is a worrying sound”).

“Worrisome” is a relative latecomer. The OED defines it as meaning “apt to cause worry or distress; given to worrying.”

The first published usage was in The Wigwam and the Cabin (1845), a story collection by the American author William Gilmore Simms: “I … followed the old man into the house, with my feelings getting more and more strange and worrisome at every moment.”

In short, you can stop worrying about “worrying.”

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