The agreeable eye

an eudæmonistarchives

I feel sick

It began with the pulp of a pumpkin which was kept in a cookpot atop the dishwasher on Halloween. Why it was kept, I know not. After a week, however, even I knew it stank. Indeed, to the very heavens. The future eminent medievalist concurred, declaring she felt nauseated. Once the windows were opened and the pot was washed, I mentioned, as practising pedant, that I found the word nauseated distasteful—why use a four-syllable word when the perfectly good nauseous is a mere two? The future eminent medievalist rounded on me; if you have never been rounded on by a future eminent medievalist, I cannot say I recommend it. She told me in no uncertain terms that I was simply wrong (an idiot—an imbecile—a pedant of impecunious wit!), that to be nauseous was the characteristic of those things which nauseate others, while to be nauseated (which I had always understood as the past tense or participle of the verb to nauseate, rather than as an independent adjective1 ) was the only correct term for feeling sick to the stomach (unless of course one wishes to say one feels sick to one’s stomach). I said I found the discussion noxious, and there the matter ended. Or would have.

Whether the future eminent medievalist had recourse to a dictionary, I cannot say; as I have been in the habit of saying that I feel a bit nauseous when inclined to be sick, I thought I’d better get my facts straight before I say anything of the sort again. To the OED. Under nauseous (Google results: 103,000):

1. † a. Of a person, the stomach, etc.: inclined to sickness or nausea; squeamish. Obs. rare.

1613 R. CAWDREY Table Alphabet. (ed. 3), Nauseous, loathing or disposed to vomit. 1651 J. FRENCH Art Distillation V. 144 It may be children or those that are of a nauseous stomack. 1678 J. RAY Coll. Eng. Prov. (ed. 2) Pref., I veiled them, that I hope they will not turn the stomach of the most nauseous.

b. orig. U.S. Of a person: affected with nausea; having an unsettled stomach; (fig.) disgusted, affected with distaste or loathing.

1949 Sat. Rev. 7 May 41 After taking dramamine, not only did the woman’s hives clear up, but she discovered that her usual trolley ride back home no longer made her nauseous. 1955 R. LINDNER Fifty-minute Hour i. 41 Always when he thought of his mother Charles would feel a little sick; not actually sick perhaps nauseous was the better word. 1977 Washington Post 15 May C4/1, I would go into the bathroom late at night and put hot and cold compresses over my eyes. I’d feel queasy and nauseous. 1991 Times 2 Aug. 12/4 When a toadlicker licks the toad his mouth and lips will become numb and he will feel intensely nauseous. 2000 Shop@home No. 7 21/4 If the thought of Xmas makes you nauseous, maybe you need to get away.

2. lit. a. Of a thing: causing nausea. In later use: esp. offensive or unpleasant to taste or smell.

1628 J. WOODALL Viaticum 13 To giue a relish to the mouth, to cause appetite in feauors and nautious distempers. 1647 N. WARD Simple Cobler Aggawam 27, I have no heart to the voyage, least their nauseous shapes and the Sea, should work too sorely upon my stomach. 1744 G. BERKELEY Siris §1 This method produceth tar-water of a nauseous kind. 1781 W. COWPER Hope 509 The full-gorged savage, at his nauseous feast Spent half the darkness. 1807 T. JEFFERSON Let. 14 June in Writings (1984) 1178 Such an editor too, would have to set his face against…slander, & the depravity of taste which this nauseous aliment induces. 1841 DICKENS Barnaby Rudge vii. 273 Cured by remedies in themselves very nauseous and unpalatable. 1875 A. HELPS Social Pressure vi. 80, I used to eat the nauseous bits first. 1904 J. LONDON Sea-wolf ii. 13 It was a nauseous mess, ship’s coffee,but the heat of it was revivifying. 1933 P. FLEMING Brazilian Adventure II. ii. 191 We landed on a beach strewn with jatobá nuts, of which we subsequently made a dish as nauseous as any I have ever tasted. 1987 M. WESLEY Not that Sort of Girl (1988) xxxii. 173 Mylo took the nauseous brew handed to him in a tiny medicinal glass.

Compare nauseated (Google results 59,900):

Originally: † causing nausea, cloying, rank (obs.). Now: suffering from or characterized by nausea.

1659 Gentleman’s Calling (1696) 163 Forsaking all the unsatisfying nauseated pleasures of Luxury. 1673 R. ALLESTREE Ladies Calling I. i. §3 To entertain new scholars only with the cast or nauseated learning of the old. 1759 SIR C. H. WILLIAMS Wks. (1822) II. 262 The nauseated reader, no longer cou’d brook The hoarse cuckow note. 1876 G. MEREDITH Beauchamp’s Career II. i. 7 Offering our nauseated Dame Britannia (or else it was the widow Bevisham) a globe of a pill to swallow, that was crossed with the consolatory and reassuring name of Shrapnel. 1891 G. MEREDITH One of our Conquerors III. vii. 131 His renewed enslavement set him perusing his tyrant keenly, as nauseated captives do; and he saw, that forgiveness was beside the case. 1962 K. A. PORTER Ship of Fools 85 He..took a dose of effervescent laxative salts, making the same nauseated face after the draught. 1990 Daily Tel. 4 Dec. 19/1, I got out of bed, but felt dreadfully giddy, nauseated and then panic stricken.

Going by the great dictionary2 it seems that nauseous has been on a boomerang semantic shift since the seventeenth century, with its active usage (‘causing nausea’) peaking in the queasy Victorian age.3 Going by Google, nauseous is clearly the more popular word and, notes on this question excepted, generally seems to mean ‘feeling sick’. Fans of usage will be murmuring (as they always do) that the nauseous/nauseated quandry is not new; indeed, it has been covered from almost every perspective, from the merely prescriptive, the dryly non-commital (American Heritage Book of English Usage, 1996), to the rather more instructive. I will not investigate further; I am satisfied; the future eminent medievalist and I were both correct, and we were both wrong, too. The score is settled. I really do not care which word you use—the context will tell me whether you are suffering from nausea or self-loathing. I must say, though, that the sort of person who begins ‘proofs’ of usage with the phrase ‘I was taught that…’ make me sick. One can be taught many facts without learning to think.

  1. But I am not a linguist—doubtless the ultimate meaning is the same, no matter what one calls it. []
  2. The OED is in this case sadly out of date—couldn’t they find a more recent use of ‘nauseous’ than Shop@home? Or were the editors trying to make a point about vulgar usage? []
  3. I really am wondering about the absolute silence on the passive use of nauseous (suffering from nausea) between 1678 and 1949, and would also like to know why it returned. []


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