The Grammarphobia Blog

Does “nauseous” make you puke?

Q: I worked on my daughter for 20 years to distinguish “nauseous” and “nauseated.” Finally, after graduating from med school, she spoke correctly. Now, a new issue: in teaching her med students, should she insist they get it right?

A: We assume you passed on to your daughter the traditional view—that “nauseous” means sickening while “nauseated” means sickened.

But the distinction between these two words is becoming less distinct year by year. In fact, it was even less so when they entered English hundreds of years ago.

In a posting we ran on our blog in 2006, we said: “If someone is sick to his stomach, he’s nauseated. If something is sickening, it’s nauseous. Never say, ‘I’m nauseous.’ Even if it’s true, why admit it?”

But in the six years since we wrote that post, the sands of English usage have been shifting. So your daughter might want to pause before correcting anyone.

These are interesting words with a tangled history.

The root word here, “nausea,” ultimately comes from ancient Greece, in which nausie (in Ionic Greek) and nautia (in Attic Greek) meant seasickness, sickness, disgust, or loathing. The word passed into Latin, in which nausea means seasickness.

The seasickness angle is significant, since the Greek nausie and nautia were derived from nautes (sailor), which in turn came from naus (ship).

All these words share an ancestor, a prehistoric Indo-European word reconstructed as nau (“boat”), according to The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots.

Through Greek and later Latin, that Indo-European root is the distant ancestor of such seafaring English words “nautical,” “nautilus,” “navy,” “naval,” “navigation,” and of course “nausea,” according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

“Nausea” came into English from Latin in the early to mid-1400s, and while the Latin word meant seasickness, the English word had a more general meaning.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines this early meaning as “a feeling of sickness with an inclination to vomit; an occurrence of such a feeling.” (It was later used to mean seasickness too.)

In the 17th century, the OED says, “nausea” came to have figurative meanings like “strong disgust, loathing, or aversion,” or “a feeling of this.”

These are still the meanings the noun “nausea” has today. But the adjectives are another matter.

The earlier of the adjectives, “nauseous,” was first recorded in 1613, according to the OED, and it originally meant “inclined to sickness or nausea; squeamish.”

That, of course, is a somewhat milder version of the meaning that makes you sick: about to throw up.

The original sense of “nauseous” has since become obsolete. But before it died out, it overlapped with another, first recorded in 1618, defined by the OED as “causing nausea,” and “in later use: esp. offensive or unpleasant to taste or smell.”

Later in the 1600s, figurative meanings of “nauseous” came along, and it was used to mean nasty, repellant, loathsome, disgusting, repulsive, or offensive.

In the late 19th century, however, two senses of “nauseous” similar to the early ones showed up in the US: “affected with nausea; having an unsettled stomach,” and “disgusted, affected with distaste or loathing.”

The OED’s earliest citation for this usage is from 1885, and the numerous examples continue into the year 2000.

A representative example is this one from a 1949 issue of the Saturday Review: “After taking dramamine, not only did the woman’s hives clear up, but she discovered that her usual trolley ride back home no longer made her nauseous.”

Meanwhile, “nauseated” was undergoing some changes of its own.

When it was first used, in the 17th century, “nauseated” meant “causing nausea, cloying, rank,” the OED says. In other words, it meant pretty much what sticklers now insist “nauseous” should mean.

The OED’s first citation for the use of the word in writing is from Richard Allestree’s book The Gentlemans Calling (1660): “Forsaking all the unsatisfying nauseated pleasures of Luxury.”

The meaning later shifted to “suffering from or characterized by nausea,” as in this citation from the works of Sir Charles H. Williams, written sometime before 1759: “The nauseated reader, no longer cou’d brook The hoarse cuckow note.”

And that has been the meaning of “nauseated” ever since—or has it?

As you can see, “nauseous” and “nauseated” have had bumpy rides. Where do they stand today?

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says flatly, “Any handbook that tells you that nauseous cannot mean ‘nauseated’ is out of touch with the contemporary language. In current use it seldom means anything else.”

Standard dictionaries agree—though not all of them state the case so strongly.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) gives “nauseous” two meanings: “1. causing nausea or disgust: nauseating. 2. affected with nausea or disgust.”

And in a usage note M-W adds: “Those who insist that nauseous can properly be used only in sense 1 and that in sense 2 it is an error for nauseated are mistaken. Current evidence shows these facts: nauseous is most frequently used to mean physically affected with nausea, usually after a linking verb such as feel or become; figurative use is quite a bit less frequent. Use of nauseous in sense 1 is much more often figurative than literal, and this use appears to be losing ground to nauseating.

In case you think the people at Merriam-Webster’s are out on a limb, here’s what the newly revised American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) says on the subject (we’ll add paragraph breaks for readability):

“Traditional usage lore has insisted that nauseous should be used only to mean ‘causing nausea’ and that it is incorrect to use it to mean ‘feeling sick to one’s stomach.’ Back in 1965, the Usage Panel was in step with this thinking, with 88 percent rejecting the ‘feeling sick’ meaning of nauseous.

“This attitude persisted for decades but has since begun to give way. In our 1988 survey, 72 percent of the Panel thought that a roller coaster should be said to makes its riders nauseated rather than nauseous. By the 1999 survey, the Panel’s attitude had changed dramatically—61 percent of the Panel approved of the sentence Roller coasters make me nauseous.

“This change might have been inevitable once people began to think that nauseous did not properly mean ‘causing nausea,’ as traditional lore would have it. Even in our 1988 survey, this was the case, as 88 percent preferred nauseating in the sentence The children looked a little green from too many candy apples and nauseating (not nauseous) rides. The 1999 results for this same example were not significantly different.

“Since there is abundant evidence for the ‘feeling sick’ use of nauseous, the word presents a classic example of a word whose traditional, ‘correct’ usage is being supplanted by a newer, ‘incorrect’ one. In other words, what was once considered an error is becoming standard practice.

Nauseous is now far more common than nauseated in describing the sick feeling. While nauseated remains for some the only ’correct’ word in this use, it is more apt to be interpreted metaphorically. We were left nauseous by the movie suggests that it made us ill. We were left nauseated by the movie implies that we were repulsed by the images.”

We could go on ad nauseam, citing Collins, Macmillan, Cambridge, and other online  dictionaries, but we’ll stop here and answer one more question: what do we think about all this?

We think it’s OK to use “nauseous” for feeling sick, though we don’t do it ourselves and we wouldn’t recommend it for formal writing. However, some holdouts would disagree. If you don’t want to get on their wrong side, use “nauseating” for sickening and “feeling sick” (or “feeling queasy”) when you’re about to throw up.

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