Q: In an economic discussion on WNYC, Brian Lehrer asked a guest which parts of the stimulus bill were most “stimulating.” He then corrected it to “stimulative.” It seems that many of us are using “stimulative” to refer to the economy, instead of “stimulating,” which I’d guess is more emotionally suggestive. Are there any interesting distinctions between the two words?
A: The adjective “stimulative” has been around for nearly 300 years, though it has largely been replaced in everyday usage by “stimulating.” According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “stimulative” means “having the property of stimulating; of a stimulating nature or character.”
It’s generally used in constructions with “of” or “to,” as in “the stimulative power of manure” (I’m not kidding; see below). Here are some citations given in the OED:
1791, from A Tour in England and Scotland in 1785, by Thomas Newte: “This would be like spreading the stimulative power of manure over large tracts of waste land.”
1836, from The Tin Trumpet, by Horatio Smith: “More stimulative of the risible faculties.”
1906, from Silanus the Christian, by E. A. Abbott: “This belief I found also stimulative to well-doing.”
By the way, “stimulative” has been a noun, too, but this usage is now labeled “rare or obscure” in the OED. Its job seems to have been taken over by “stimulant,” “stimulus,” and “incentive.”
But getting back to adjectives, “stimulating” is only slightly older than “stimulative.” Here are a few OED citations:
circa 1732, from John Gay’s Fables (the speaker here is an ox): “Urg’d by the stimulating goad, I drag the cumbrous waggon’s load.”
1873, from On Some Influences of Christianity Upon National Character, by R. W. Church: “The sentences of Seneca are stimulating to the intellect.”
1908, from Stewart of Lovedale, by James Wells: “Admirable and stimulating as he was as a preacher, Mr. Stewart was even more stimulating as a teacher.”
The OED doesn’t make much distinction between the two words. But “stimulating” does seem to convey emotional overtones (excitement and so on) that are lacking in “stimulative.”
Maybe all the commentary about the economic stimulus package will stimulate “stimulative” into making a comeback!