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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.

Poe’s Law states that “without a winking smiley or other blatant display of humor, it is utterly impossible to parody a Creationist in such a way that someone won’t mistake it for the genuine article.”  The problem is that some Creationists really are so crazy that they can’t be parodied. I’m beginning to think that Poe’s Law needs to be adapted to apply to prescriptivism as well as Creationism; you would be hard-pressed to find a grammar claim so absurd that no grammarian would say it.

I mention this because of Gene Weingarten’s Chatological Humor, a chat on the Washington Post website. Weingarten is a humor writer for the Post, but he apparently feels strongly about grammar; his chat alternates between jokes and weird complaints about language usage. Given that the rest of chat is clearly intended to be humorous, it’s difficult to tell if he intends his grammatical advice to be humorous as well. The problem is that, as per Poe’s Law, it’s nearly impossible to distinguish honest insane complaints about grammar from facetious insane complaints. As a result, I’m slightly uncomfortable with deriding his grammatical beliefs. After all, there’s nothing that makes you look dumber than getting riled up about obvious satire.

Let’s go for it anyway. On the October 28 chat, Weingarten asks if there is something wrong with the sentence

(1) The drawing of the succubus was five times bigger than the drawing of the incubus.

Is there? Weingarten apparently thinks so:

“Something can’t be five times bigger than something else. It can be five times as big. “Bigger” allows only addition, nut [sic] multiplication as the modifying factor. “Five times bigger” is meaningless.”

This is insane on its face. First, math and grammar generally shouldn’t mix.  That’s why Matt Lane (of Math Goes Pop!) and I no longer speak to each other.  But seriously, what the devil is this even supposed to mean?  I’m not even going to try to interpret the difference between addition and multiplication in bigger, because it’s so very obvious that this is completely wrong.

Five times bigger isn’t meaningless.  I understand it, and I’m willing to bet that you do too.  The only question is whether five times bigger means something that is 500 or 600% the size of the reference point. (From the examples I found from searching “exactly * times bigger” on Google, it looks like 500% is the standard interpretation.)  But this uncertain interpretation just indicates that five times bigger is chock full of meanings, not meaningless.

And anyway, despite Weingarten’s assertion that five times bigger is impossible or meaningless, it’s been attested for centuries.  Witness its use in The Folly and Unreasonableness of Atheism (1699), The English Rogue (1671), or An Exposition of the Prophescie of Hosea (1641).  Constructions don’t stick around for almost 500 years if they are meaningless.  How utterly ignorant of your language do you have be to go around asserting such things?

Unless this is all a clever joke, in which case I have an awful lot of egg to get off my face.

Summary: X times bigger is a completely valid phrase, so long as X is a number/quantifier.

I should warn you, dear reader, that this post descends into the morass of my own political opinions and contains no grammar issues.  I can’t claim that my opinions and theories and viewpoints are anything more than half-baked.  Also, I inherited my political argumentation style from my father, which means that I have no problem employing profanity when I feel it is justified.  If you think that your opinion of me may be skewed by reading such things, I advise that you stop reading now, please.  There will be another grammar post soon enough.

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A lot of people make claims about what "good English" is. Much of what they say is flim-flam, and this blog aims to set the record straight. Its goal is to explain the motivations behind the real grammar of English and to debunk ill-founded claims about what is grammatical and what isn't. Somehow, this was enough to garner a favorable mention in the Wall Street Journal.

About Me

I'm Gabe Doyle, currently a postdoctoral scholar in the Language and Cognition Lab at Stanford University. Before that, I got a doctorate in linguistics from UC San Diego and a bachelor's in math from Princeton.

In my research, I look at how humans manage one of their greatest learning achievements: the acquisition of language. I build computational models of how people can learn language with cognitively-general processes and as few presuppositions as possible. Currently, I'm working on models for acquiring phonology and other constraint-based aspects of cognition.

I also examine how we can use large electronic resources, such as Twitter, to learn about how we speak to each other. Some of my recent work uses Twitter to map dialect regions in the United States.

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