English language Etymology Grammar Usage

Not for the squeamish?

Q: A colleague and I are debating whether “of” is a proper preposition to follow “squeamish.” I believe a subject can be “squeamish of” an object. He thinks it should be “squeamish about” it. Thoughts?

A: You’re both right. The Oxford English Dictionary says “squeamish” is normally used with “about,” “as to,” “at,” “of,” “to,” or “toward.”

The adjective began life in the early 1300s as “squeamous,” adopted from the Anglo-Norman escoymous, which the OED describes as “of obscure origin.”

The word with the “-ish” suffix first showed up in the 1400s.

Although both the “-ous” and “-ish” suffixes coexisted for several centuries in various spellings of the word, the versions with “-ous” are now considered obsolete or dialectal.

The adjective meant disdainful or fastidious when it entered English, but it took on the additional sense of easily shocked or prudish in the 1500s.

Here’s the earliest OED example for “squeamish” used with each of its prepositions:

1608: “If we would … not be so squeamish as to refuse those wholesome medicines which are easie to be had.” (From Edward Topsell’s Historie of Serpents; Or, the Second Booke of Living Creatures.)

Before 1625: “If you please sir; I am not squeamish of my visitation.” (From The Womans Prize, a comedy by John Fletcher.)

1654: “Squemish towards the present, and longing for Innovation.” (From Zootomia, a treatise by Richard Whitlock.)

1676: “When they are nice, curious, and squeamish about undetermined circumstances in forms of administration.” (From a speech about religious nonconformists, by William Allen.)

1784: “We found that he was too squeamish to drink turtle’s blood.” (From A Voyage to the Pacific Ocean, by James Cook and James King.)

1843: “But now the uneasy stomach of the time / Turns squeamish at them both.” (From “A Glance Behind the Curtain,” a poem by James Russell Lowell.)

We get many questions, both from native speakers of English and from newcomers to the language, about the sometimes perplexing use of prepositions.

The book Words Into Type (3rd ed.), familiar to journalists, has a handy section called “The Right Preposition,” consisting of a long list of words together with the prepositions they usually take. Unfortunately, it doesn’t include “squeamish.”

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