The Grammarphobia Blog

The OED is not enthused

Q: Is “enthused” a word?

A: Many people object to the verb “enthuse” (to feel or cause or show enthusiasm) and to its participle “enthused.” But both are indeed words, if inclusion in dictionaries is any indication.

You can find them in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), and the Oxford English Dictionary, among others.

They’re back-formations, a term given to new words formed by dropping prefixes or suffixes from older ones—in this case the noun “enthusiasm.”

We’ve written about back-formations before on our blog. Other words that were formed this way include “incent” (from “incentive”), “escalate” (from “escalator”), “baby-sit” (from “babysitter”), and “curate” (from “curator”).

Back-formations always take time to gain acceptance. And while “enthuse” and “enthused” are now accepted by most lexicographers as standard English, this wasn’t always the case.

A Merriam-Webster’s usage note says the verb “is apparently American in origin, although the earliest known example of its use occurs in a letter written in 1827 by a young Scotsman who spent about two years in the Pacific Northwest.”

The note continues: “It has been disapproved since about 1870. Current evidence shows it to be flourishing nonetheless on both sides of the Atlantic esp. in journalistic prose.”

American Heritage also includes an interesting usage note within its entry for “enthuse” (we’ll add paragraph breaks for readability):

“The verb enthuse, a back-formation from enthusiasm, is viewed as an irritant by many. The sentence The majority leader enthused over his party’s gains was rejected by 76 percent of the Usage Panel in our 1982 survey, by 65 percent in 1997, and by 66 percent in 2009.

“Back-formations often meet with disapproval on their first appearance and only gradually become accepted. For example, diagnose, which was first recorded in 1861, is a back-formation from diagnosis and is perfectly acceptable today.

“Since enthuse dates from 1827, there may be something more at play here than a slower erosion of popular resistance. Unlike enthusiasm, which denotes an internal emotional state, enthuse denotes either the external expression of emotion (as in She enthused over attending the Oscar ceremonies) or the inducement of enthusiasm by an external source (as in He was so enthused about the diet pills that he agreed to do a testimonial in a television ad).

“It is possible that a distaste for this emphasis on external emotional display and emotional manipulation is sometimes the source of distaste for the word itself.”

Both American Heritage and Merriam-Webster’s now accept “enthuse” and “enthused” as standard English. The Oxford English Dictionary, however, still labels “enthuse” as humorous or colloquial (that is, characteristic of spoken rather than written English).

As for the etymology of “enthuse,” the OED calls it “an ignorant back-formation.” Ouch! As we said, these things take time.

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