Etymology Usage

Anxiety attack

Q: I often hear people (including me) use “anxious” in a sentence like “I’m anxious to get started.” My dad wishes they would say, “I’m eager to get started,” as there is no apparent anxiety present. Is he right?

A: Language mavens are divided over whether “anxious” should be used for “eager” in a sentence like that one.

For example, the Usage Panel that advises The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language has been divided almost evenly over whether this sentence is legit: “We are anxious to see the new show of British sculpture at the museum.” (Fifty-two percent reject the usage.)

In fact, we’re divided too. Stewart thinks it’s OK to use the adjective “anxious” to mean very eager in that American Heritage example, but Pat gives the sentence a thumbs down.

The naysayers believe “anxious” should be used for “eager” only when the subject is clearly worried or uneasy about what follows, as in this American Heritage example: “We are anxious to see the strike settled soon.”

The editors of the American Heritage fifth edition note that “anxious” has a long history as a synonym for “eager,” but add that resistance to the usage “remains strong” despite the fact that “many people are willing to accept it.”

Interestingly, the prohibition against using “anxious” to mean “eager” is relatively new.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says the first language guide to mention it was Ambrose Bierce’s Write it Right (1909).

Bierce was especially bugged by what he considered the unidiomatic use of “anxious” followed by an infinitive phrase, as in your example as well as the two in American Heritage.  

Another language writer, Alfred Ayres, had criticized the usage earlier in “A Plea for Cultivating the English Language,” a 1901 article in Harper’s Weekly. Ayres was commenting on an anecdote cited in the Chattanooga (Tenn.) Times.

“From its modest beginnings in the Ayres anecdote and Bierce’s prescription,” the Merriam-Webster’s usage guide says, “the anxious-eager question rapidly became a shibboleth in American usage.”

The M-W editors note that “anxious/eager is not a shibboleth in British English,” perhaps because Henry Fowler, the language maven’s language maven, “pooh-poohed the whole matter” in A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926).

R. W. Burchfield, writing in the revised third edition of Fowler’s usage guide, suggests that the taboo against using “anxious” to mean “eager” may reflect the widespread use of psychiatric language in the 20th century.

He notes that “anxiety” originally meant merely “uneasiness of mind” when it entered English around 1525 in the works of Thomas More.

“In the 20c.,” Burchfield writes, “psychiatric terms like anxiety neurosis have strengthened the belief that a morbid state of mind lies behind the words anxiety and anxious.”

Although “anxious” did have its roots in “anxiety,” he says, “in the 18c., the adjective began to turn on its axis and came also to mean ‘full of desire and endeavour; earnestly desirous (to bring about some purpose).’ ”

The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest published reference for this sense of “anxious” is from “The Grave,” a 1743 poem by Robert Blair: “The gentle Heart Anxious to please.”

The OED’s next citation is from a 1794 letter by Lord Nelson: “The General seems as anxious as any of us to expedite the fall of the place.”

The Merriam-Webster’s usage manual points out that respected writers have been using “anxious” in the sense of “eager” ever since, sometimes suggesting a sense of worry and sometimes not.

Here are just a few of the usage guide’s many examples of the phrases “anxious to,” “anxious about,” “anxious for,” and “anxious that” used in this sense:

“I feel no hesitation in saying, I was more anxious to hear your critique, however severe, than the praises of the million” (Lord Byron, in a March 6, 1807, letter).

“Your mother is quite anxious about it, but cannot very well spare time to sit down herself, because of her fringe” (Jane Austen, in Mansfield Park, 1814).

“Constance insisted, anxious that he should live up to his reputation for Sophia’s benefit” (Arnold Bennett, in The Old Wives’ Tale, 1908).

“All seemed pleased with the performance and anxious for another of the same sort” (Kingsley Amis, in Lucky Jim, 1954).

After two pages of examples, Merriam-Webster’s concludes: “Anyone who says that careful writers do not use anxious in its ‘eager’ sense has simply not examined the available evidence.”

So is it OK for you to use “anxious” in the sense of “eager”?

Well, the etymological evidence supports this usage, but a lot of language types disagree. Go ahead and use it if you want, but be aware that you’ll bug some sticklers—including your dad!

Check out our books about the English language