I have to admit that I am thoroughly addicted to Google Trends.  I just can’t help myself; it’s the perfect way to keep up-to-date with the stuff that people search for, the stuff that affects real people, the stuff that might not make it to the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal, but is saved from falling through the cracks of our consciousness with glitzy coverage on “Access Hollywood” or its ilk.  Keeping up with Google Trends keeps me from looking uppity when I say “I don’t have cable”, because I can follow it up with “But did you hear that Lindsay Lohan had flour thrown on her?”

Anyway, I bring this up because a few days ago Google Trends, as it so often does, suckered me into reading a news story that I wished I hadn’t.  In this particular case, the problem was that the accompanying pictures made me slightly ill. As a result of this unfortunate sight, I may well have said something like “Oh great, now I’m nauseous,” although I can’t be sure because I have a poor memory.

But supposing I did say that, it was lucky that I was alone in the lab, for had a prescriptivist (or snoot) been within earshot, I would have been treated to a tut-tutting about how nauseous doesn’t mean what I think it means.  And of course, if there’s anything that will improve an ill person’s mood, it’s sanctimonious lecturing.

But is it at least justifiable sanctimony?  Suppose your friend comes to you complaining that his stomach’s all sour and that thus he’s feeling nauseous. Now suppose that you reply, “Funny, but you’re not making me feel sick.  Perhaps you mean nauseated.”  Are you doing the tough love thing, or are you just an obnoxious imbecile?  Put another way, is it all right to use nauseous to mean “beset by nausea”/”sickened”, or does nauseous only mean “inducing nausea”/”sickening”?

I’d like to answer this with three quotes.  The first comes from Cawdrey’s Table Alphabet of 1613, as cited in the Oxford English Dictionary: “Nauseous, loathing or disposed to vomit.”  The second is from the Supplements to the Connecticut Courant (from 1857): “Then the relaxant influence of lobelia made her feel nauseous, and nausea is a suitable antidote to ugliness…”  The last is from the Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, and is longer and deserving of a block quote:

“Behind the intense, though relatively recent, controversy over these words is a persistent belief, dear to the hearts of many American commentators, that nauseous has but a single sense: ‘causing nausea.’  There is, however, no basis for this belief.”

The first quote establishes that the original meaning of nauseous was “susceptible to nausea”, which is quite close to the modern maligned meaning of “sickened”, and quite unlike the revered meaning “sickening”.  The second is to establish that this maligned meaning was attested in “America’s oldest continuously published newspaper” over 150 years ago, and has stuck around ever since.  And the third, well, it speaks for itself.

The truth of the matter is that nausea has been quite productively affixed over the years.  In addition to nauseous, there’s also nauseated, nauseating, nauseant, nauseation, nauseity, and others.  And the ugly truth of the matter is that these words’ meanings have always fluctuated.  Going with our three approximate definitions, here’s when each adjective had each meaning (all dates are approximate and based predominantly on the OED):

nauseous: susceptible to nausea (1600s), sickening (1600s-now), sickened (1850s-now)

nauseated: sickening (1600s), sickened (1700s-now)

nauseating: sickening (1600s-now)

nauseant: sickening (1850s-now)

nauseative: susceptible to nausea (1600s)

My point is this: no one reading this blog, or reading anything you’ve ever written, was alive when nauseous took on the “sickened” meaning.  The “sickened” meaning has been in use for generations!  Sure, it wasn’t the original meaning, but then “sickening” wasn’t the original meaning either.  Given that there have been a good deal of changes in the definitions of these words over time, why not just accept that nauseous changed back in the 1850s to have multiple meanings?

The only possibly reasonable opposition to this is that you’re worried about getting confused as to which meaning of nauseous an author intends.  But, as the MWDEU explains, the two meanings have different distributions, so it’s almost always clear which one is intended.  The full details are in the MWDEU, but in short, it’s this. No one says they “feel nauseating“, and similarly, no one says they “feel nauseous” intending the sickening meaning.  Likewise, no one says “that’s a nauseated odor”, or “that’s a nauseous odor” intending the sickened meaning.  In almost every situation it’s totally unambiguous which meaning is intended.  Let’s let nauseous mean what it means.  BOTH meanings.

Summary: nauseous has had two meanings for the past 150 years, both “sickened” and “sickening”.  Any one concerned that having two meanings will lead to terrible confusion are either naive or shedding crocodile tears.  And, at least in America, almost no one uses nauseous to mean “sickening” anyhow.  If you can’t figure out what “I feel nauseous” is supposed to mean, you’re actively trying to misinterpret it.

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