The Grammarphobia Blog

What’s in a word?

Q: Why aren’t these words, and can they be: “vigorance” or “vigorence” (instead of “vigorousness”) and “analgesity” (meaning pain resistance)?

A: Put simply, a word is a unit of language that has meaning, can be written or spoken, and is used to form sentences. By that definition, the terms you’re asking about are already words, though they’re barely on the lexical radar and can’t be found in standard dictionaries.

A bit of googling will give you examples for “vigorance,” “vigorence,” and “analgesity,” terms that clearly have meaning to the people who use them, but not to many others.

Vigorance,” for example, is the brand name for a series of hair-care products, “Vigorence” is the name of a program to revive stressed-out executives, and the developers of an analgesic derived from snake venom tested the antidote for its “analgesity.”

Can those terms take on the meanings you want them to have, and find acceptance in standard dictionaries?

Lexicographers, the people who compile dictionaries, examine the various media—Facebook, Twitter, the New York Times, Fox News, Amazon bestsellers, Wikipedia, and so on—in search of new words to add.

If enough people use a new term, it will eventually make it into dictionaries. But we wouldn’t bet on “vigorance,” “vigorence,” or “analgesity.”

We’ve written over the years about words we’d like to save—and a lot of good it’s done! The people who speak a language, not language mavens, decide which words live and which die.

For what it’s worth, we don’t see any need for “vigorance” or “vigorence.” If you want a shorter, punchier word than “vigorousness,” how about “vigor”? It seems vigorous enough to us.

As for a word to describe resistance to pain, one might use “analgesia,” which means the reduction or absence of pain. Or perhaps “analgesic,” which is a noun or an adjective for a substance that reduces pain. And if you’d prefer a less technical term, “painkilling” and “painkiller” are possibilities.

The word “analgesic” (as well as the variant “analgetic”) is derived from the noun “analgesia,” which meant the absence of pain when it showed up in the late 17th century. All three terms are ultimately derived from the classical Greek analgesiaan (without) plus algesis (sense of pain).

The first citation for “analgesia” in the Oxford English Dictionary is from a 1684 English translation of a medical dictionary compiled by the Dutch physician Steven Blankaart. The definition of “analgesia” includes “absence of pain and grief.”

By the early 20th century, the word was being used in the modern sense of “the relief or reduction of pain, by the use of drugs or other treatments,” according to the OED.

The dictionary’s earliest example of the new sense is from the June 2, 1900, issue of the Lancet: “The first operation was done under local (eucaine) analgesia and the second under chloroform anæsthesia.”

The word “analgesic” first showed up in the mid-19th century as an adjective meaning “insensitive to pain; exhibiting loss or reduction of the ability to feel pain,” according to the OED.

The earliest Oxford citation is from an 1852 issue of the North American Homœopathic Journal: “There are sensitive spots or even points in the midst of analgesic surfaces.”

In a couple of decades, the adjective took on its modern sense of relieving or reducing pain. The earliest OED example is from an 1868 issue of the American Journal of the Medical Sciences:

“Thus we clearly separate anæsthetics from soporifics, or rather the analgesic influence from the hypnotic.”

The noun “analgesic” soon showed up with the sense of “a drug or other treatment that relieves or reduces pain.”

The dictionary’s first example is from A Treatise on Therapeutics (1874), by the American physician Horatio C. Wood Jr.:

“In the class Analgesics, are placed those drugs whose chief clinical use is in the relief of pain.”

The words “vigor,” “vigorous,” and “vigorousness” are much older, dating back to the 14th and 15th centuries. English adopted them from Anglo-Norman, but the ultimate source is the Latin vigor, which refers to physical and mental energy.

The first to show up, the adjective “vigorous,” meant strong, healthy, and active when it appeared in Arthour and Merlin, an anonymous Middle English romance written around 1330:

“Herui, þat was vigrous & liȝt, / On þe scheld him hit a dint hard” (“Hervi, who was vigorous and quick, / Struck a hard blow against his shield”).

The noun “vigor” referred to active physical strength, power, and energy when it appeared a half-century later. The earliest Oxford citation is from “The Man of Law’s Tale” in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (1386):

“That right as god spirit of vigour sente / To hem, and saued hem out of meschance, / So sente he myght and vigour to Custance” (“That just as God sent to them the spirit of vigor to save them from disaster, so he sent might and vigor to Constance”).

Finally, “vigorousness,” a longer and perhaps clunkier version of “vigor,” showed up in Promptorium Parvulorum, an English-Latin dictionary written around 1440 and attributed to a medieval monk known as Galfredus Grammaticus, or Geoffrey the Grammarian: “Vigorowsnesse, vigorositas, ferocitas.”

We’re not feeling much vigorositas or ferocitas right now, so we’ll call it a day.

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