The Grammarphobia Blog

A Sisyphean profusion

Q: I was listening to WNYC the other day when I heard one of the commentators use the word “Sisyphusian.” I believe the word should be “Sisyphean.” Your comments please

A: Sisyphus, the late king of Corinth who was forced to roll a huge rock up a hill in Hades, only to have it roll down again, gave us the adjective “Sisyphean,” a handy word for describing useless labor.

I can’t find an entry for “Sisyphusian” in any of the dictionaries I regularly consult. But two of them, the Oxford English Dictionary and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), include a lesser-known spelling, “Sisyphian.”

In fact, the “Sisyphian” version apparently showed up first. The earliest published reference for it in the OED is from a 1599 poem that describes silkworms as “Sisyphian soules.”

The more common word, “Sisyphean,” first appeared in a 1635 poem: “I barter sighs for tears, and tears for grones, / Still vainly rolling Sisyphean stones.”

I don’t know whether “Sisyphusian” will ever make it into my favorite dictionaries, but I suspect that it’s on the radar of the lexicographers who update those dictionaries.

I had 21,600 hits when I googled the word – from “Sisyphusian tasks” to “Sisyphusian bailouts” to “Sisyphusian vacuuming.”

Where does this new coinage come from? Perhaps a profusion of Sisyphean tasks may be described as Sisyphusian.

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