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Writing Tip: January 16, 2006

Nauseated versus Nauseous, with an Aside on the Word Notoriety

Do you think the words nauseous and nauseated are used appropriately in the following sentences?

1. Jane, who is two-months pregnant, will miss the lecture this morning because she is nauseous.

2. The very smell of oatmeal makes me nauseated.

3. Because his manners are very poor, Bernard often tells nauseous jokes at the dinner table.

Language purists will say that only sentences 2 and 3 are correct. They distinguish carefully between the words nauseated and nauseous, arguing that to be nauseous means to evoke nausea in someone else.

Seventy-two percent of the usage panelists for The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed., 2000), for example, believe that using nauseous to mean "feeling sick" is incorrect. They would say, then, that in sentence 1, nauseous is incorrect. Nauseated, they argue, is the better choice because the pregnant woman herself feels ill; she does not make others feel nauseated.

Lexicons and descriptive linguists, however, tell us that there are many instances throughout history--and especially in common usage today--in which people have used nauseous to mean "experiencing nausea." One well-respected lexicon, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed., 2003), gives two definitions for nauseous. The first definition is "causing nausea or disgust," and in this sense, the word is synonymous with nauseating. The second definition for nauseous is "affected with nausea or disgust," and in this sense, the word is synonymous with nauseated. Webster’s Eleventh goes on to defend the second use of nauseous solely on the basis of overwhelming "current usage."

Interestingly, although many people want to use nauseous to mean both "making others ill" and "being ill," no one would use nauseated in both senses. In the third of our opening sentences, for example, we would understand clearly that a joke cannot itself be nauseated; it cannot "feel queasy." A joke, however, can be in such poor taste that it makes listeners feel ill; it can be, therefore, nauseous.

The usage note in Webster’s Eleventh points out that the word nauseous actually "appears to be losing ground" to the words nauseated and nauseating, which have very clearly different meanings. American Heritage agrees, noting that 88 percent of its usage panelists prefer nauseating over nauseous to describe something or someone who makes others feel sick.

So what do we advise? Perhaps the best idea is to avoid the word nauseous altogether and to use nauseated to mean "experiencing nausea" and nauseating to mean "causing nausea." If you choose, however, to use nauseous to mean "experiencing nausea," be aware that although the dictionaries may be on your side, your audience may misunderstand you or believe you have made an error in usage.

The debate over the "real" meaning of the word nauseous is one of many usage issues underscoring the ongoing semantic duel between the traditional language purists (prescriptivists) and those who hold that meaning is dictated by popular usage (descriptivists). While we are perfectly aware that language evolves throughout time, we are bothered by changes that make communication blurry. If nauseous can mean both "making others sick" and "feeling sick," then the speaker or writer who uses that word is in great danger of not being clear and leaves him- or herself open to misinterpretation.

Common usage often obscures or even obliterates the subtle and very rich connotative differences between words, rendering our language far less precise, far less clear and colorful, than it could be and, in fact, is.

The word notoriety, for example (the noun form of the adjective notorious) is closely related to the noun fame in that both words are used in reference to individuals who are widely known--who are famous. Yet--for the present, at least--both the prescriptivists and the descriptivists accept that the connotation of notoriety is quite negative: the word tells us that the person is famous specifically and wholly for unsavory reasons.

More and more often, however, we hear notoriety used to mean simply that someone is famous or well known. We fear that eventually the negative connotation of notoriety will be lost entirely and the word will become a mere synonym for fame--the latter, of course, being a noun that has no connotative meaning whatsoever. One can achieve fame for all sorts of behavior, for deeds both good and bad. But one can never achieve notoriety for good deeds. Although many people are famous, not all of them are notorious.

For articles on other confusing word pairs (effect and affect, lay and lie, I and me, which and that, for example), click on the link to "more tips" below.

© 2006 Get It Write. All rights reserved.

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