The Grammarphobia Blog

Trouble’s weird sister

Q: A review in the New Yorker of a poetry collection says the poet’s later work “has troubled the idea that poems might tame the world by metaphor.” Have you ever seen “trouble” used this way? Weird to me.

A: We do occasionally run across this ambiguous use of the verb “trouble,” but not in ordinary English. All the examples we’ve seen are in literary criticism or academic writing.

In most of these cases the meaning of the verb is so vague that it could be any number of things—”question,” “reject,” “doubt,”  “repudiate,” “discredit,” “challenge,” “rebut,” “undermine,” “disprove,” “dismiss,” “diminish,” or “deny.”

As we’ll explain later, none of those senses of “trouble” are found in the Oxford English Dictionary or in any of the 10 standard dictionaries we’ve checked.

The sentence you quote is from Dan Chiasson’s review of Swift: New and Selected Poems, by David Baker (New Yorker, April 8, 2019). Chiasson seems to use “trouble” in the sense of “reject.” At least that’s our interpretation, which we arrived at after reading the entire review.

This is often the case when you find the verb “trouble” in writing that’s scholarly or literary. A lone sentence, without further context, isn’t enough to tell the reader what the word means.

We’ll mention a few more examples in which we’ve hazarded a guess at the meaning of the verb. In the following passage, “have troubled” probably means “have undermined” or “have diminished”:

“In the forty years since, transnational feminisms, Native and indigenous feminisms, and women of color feminisms have troubled the idea of a global sisterhood while also providing tools to navigate the global realities of our contemporary societies.” (From a 2013 call for papers to be published in Frontiers: A Journal of Women’s Studies.)

In this next example, “trouble” seems to mean “disprove” or “discredit”:

“In Scurvy Lamb also seeks to trouble the notion that sailors, doctors, and other scientists readily accepted the use of citrus fruits as a cure for scurvy.” (From Sarah Schuetze’s review of Jonathan Lamb’s book Scurvy: The Disease of Discovery, in the fall 2017 issue of Digital Defoe: Studies in Defoe & His Contemporaries.)

And in this sentence, to “trouble” appears to mean to “challenge” or “call into question”:

“In this section I will discuss four problems that trouble the theory of counterfactuals.” (From Julian Reiss’s “Counterfactuals,” a chapter in The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Social Science, 2012, edited by Harold Kincaid.)

In our opinion, any word that confuses the reader should be replaced. We aren’t saying that a word can’t be open to interpretation, just that it shouldn’t be deliberately obscure for no good reason.

(To be fair, academics and literary critics aren’t the only writers who seem to like murky language; legal, medical, and technical writing is full of it.)

But let’s move on to the history of the verb “trouble” and the recognized dictionary definitions.

Etymologically, to “trouble” is to “disturb,” and there’s a connection between the two verbs. Both came into Middle English from Old French after the Norman Conquest, and they have a common ancestor in classical Latin: the noun turba (a tumult, a crowd), from the Greek τύρβη (túrbē, disorder).

During Roman times, turba gave rise to new words in classical Latin—the adjective turbidus (confused, disordered) and verbs turbāre and disturbāre (disturb or disorder).

It’s disturbāre that gave us the verb “disturb” (the “dis-” is an intensifier, not a negative prefix). And it’s turbidus that eventually gave us the verb “trouble,” though there were side trips along the way.

During the Middle Ages, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins, the adjective turbidus was altered in late Latin to turbulus (agitated, confused, muddy). This in turn led to the late Latin verb turbulāre (to disrupt or agitate), which made its way into Old French and finally English as the verb “trouble.”

So “trouble” has several relatives, not only “disturb” but also “turbulent,” “turbine,” and even “turbid” (muddy, confused).

The verb has been part of written English since at least the early 1200s (the noun came slightly later, circa 1230). This is the OED’s earliest example, which we’ve expanded to give more of the context:

“Þu schuldest … nawt trubli þin heorte & sturien in to wreaððe” (“Thou shouldst … not trouble thy heart and stir it to wrath”). The quotation is from Ancrene Riwle, an anonymous Middle English guide for monastic women. The manuscript cited is a copy from around 1230, but the OED says the original may date from before 1200.

The meaning of “trouble” in that medieval manuscript is still with us today. The OED defines it this way: “to put into a state of (mental) agitation or disquiet; to disturb, distress, grieve, perplex.”

In the 1300s, the verb developed several meanings “related to physical disturbance,” Oxford says, but they’re now obsolete or archaic. To “trouble” water, for example, was to stir it up and make it cloudy (a sense that survives in the expression “troubled water”).

Today, the meanings of “trouble” all have to do with “mental disturbance, and related uses,” the OED says, and all emerged in the 13th to 16th centuries. Here we’ll summarize them, based on definitions in the OED and 10 standard American and British dictionaries (the examples are ours):

  1. to afflict or cause pain or discomfort: “His war wound no longer troubles him.”
  2. to cause anxiety or worry: “Her bad grades trouble her parents.”
  3. to agitate, disturb, or distress: “Memory loss can deeply trouble a patient.”
  4. to cause (perhaps minor) inconvenience: “Can I trouble you for a light?”
  5. to pester, bother, or annoy: “I asked you not to trouble your father with it.”
  6. to take pains or make an effort: “Don’t trouble to make your bed.”

In all those senses, the meaning of the verb “trouble” is immediately clear. There’s no ambiguity.

As we said before, no dictionary has yet recognized the fuzzy sense of “trouble” used in literary criticism and scholarly writing. We suspect this is because (a) it’s not in general use and (b) there’s no agreement on what it means.

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