Q: In 2012, the two of you were divided over the use of “anxious” to mean “eager.” I’m eager to learn if you’re still at odds, and anxiously await an update.
A: Put your mind at rest. We both now agree that one can be “anxious” as well as “eager” to do something, though not all language mavens are ready to join us.
The naysayers reject a sentence like “We were anxious to see the new musical.” They believe “anxious” can be used only if there’s anxiety involved: “She’s anxious to see a cardiologist about the palpitations.”
As Bryan A. Garner writes in Garner’s Modern English Usage (4th ed.), “when no sense of uneasiness is attached to the situation, anxious isn’t the best word” and “it displaces a word that might traditionally have been considered its opposite—namely eager.”
However, the anxiety-free use of “anxious” to mean “eager” was well-established before American usage authorities began questioning the practice in the early 20th century.
English borrowed the adjective “anxious” from classical Latin, where anxius meant worried, disturbed, uneasy, and so on. But “anxious” began evolving soon after it showed up in English in the 16th century.
When it first appeared in writing, “anxious” referred to someone “experiencing worry or nervousness, typically about the future or something with an uncertain outcome,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
The earliest OED example is from Nicholas Lesse’s 1548 translation of a Latin treatise by the French theologian François Lambert: “Wherfore do we then endeuour oure selues to do anie thinge, wherefore are we so anxiouse & careful?”
In a couple of decades, however, “anxious” was being used before an infinitive to express a strong desire or eagerness to do something, sometimes with anxiety and sometimes without.
The first Oxford example for the new sense is from Actes and Monuments of Matters Most Speciall and Memorable, Happenyng in the Church (2nd ed., 1570), an ecclesiastical history by John Foxe.
In the citation, Prince Frederick III, the Elector of Saxony, is described as “very anxious and inquisitiue to heare the iudgementes of other, which were both aged, & learned.”
As far as we can tell, there’s no anxiety here. Although Frederick faced an important decision, Foxe earlier describes him as an easygoing man who “loued best quietnes & cōmon trāquilitie” and was “trustyng to hys owne iudgemēt.”
(After consulting Erasmus, the Prince decided to protect Martin Luther despite the opposition of Pope Leo X and Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor.)
Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage has many anxiety-less, infinitive examples in which respected writers use “anxious” to do something in the sense of “eager” to do it:
Lord Byron, in Canto XV of his poem Don Juan (1824), writes: “His manner was perhaps the more seductive, / Because he ne’er seem’d anxious to seduce.”
And in Omoo (1847), a semi-fictionalized South Seas memoir, Herman Melville writes that “the men looked hard at him, anxious to see what sort of looking ‘cove’ he was.”
Charles Darwin, in On the Origin of Species (1859), says, “I could give many facts, showing how anxious bees are to save time.”
And in Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel Treasure Island (1883), Jim Hawkins, the narrator, says “anxious as I was to tell them my story, I durst not interrupt.”
Merriam-Webster’s conclusion? “Anyone who says that careful writers do not use anxious in its ‘eager’ sense has simply not examined the available evidence.”
As far as we can tell, writers used “anxious” in place of “eager” for hundreds of years before anyone raised an eyebrow at the usage.
“The discovery that anxious must not be used to mean ‘eager’ seems to have been made in the U.S. in the early 20th century,” M-W says
The first usage guide to criticize the practice was Ambrose Bierce’s Write It Right (1909). But several years earlier, in July 1901, the language writer Alfred Ayres criticized it in “A Plea for Cultivating the English Language,” an article published in Harper’s Monthly Magazine.
Interestingly, British usage writers haven’t been troubled by the use of “anxious” for “eager.” Henry W. Fowler, in the first edition of A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926), describes it as a “natural” development and “almost universally current.”
The latest version of Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (4th ed.), by Jeremy Butterfield, describes the use of “anxious” for “eager” as “historically well attested” and “absolutely standard.”
In recent years, American critics of the anxiety-free use of “anxious” with an infinitive have been coming around.
The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language notes in its online edition: “In our 1999 survey of the Usage Panel, 47 percent approved of the sentence We are anxious to see the new show of British sculpture at the museum, whereas in 2014, this sentence was acceptable to 57 percent of panelists.”
“Although resistance to the use of anxious to mean eager is waning,” American Heritage cautions, “writers should be aware that there are still those who frown upon using the word in situations where no anxiety is present.”