Dear Word Detective: My daughter’s teacher told her that “sweat” should only be used for animals, and that humans “perspire.” I think that this is just an urban legend and that it is quite correct to say that a person “sweats.” Am I right? — Suressh.
Say, could you do me a favor? Please ask your daughter’s teacher if I can borrow that time machine for a moment. I need to zip back a few decades and change my college major. I figure dual law and medical degrees would stand me in good stead, although with my luck I’d probably just end up suing myself. But it would still beat journalism and animal husbandry, or whatever it was I took. Things were kind of hazy back then.
The reason I mention time travel is that your daughter’s teacher appears to be recycling a bit of faux-Victorian vocabulary guidance, the most common version of which goes: “Horses sweat, men perspire, women glow.” I say “faux-Victorian” because I cannot actually find the axiom in print before the 1950s, but in any case, it seems to have been a staple of etiquette manuals for many years, so apparently at least some people took it seriously. On the other hand, neither “sweat” nor “perspire” are listed in the Oxford English Dictionary as synonyms of “glow,” so it’s unlikely that “glow” ever led an independent existence as a euphemism for “sweat” outside of that particular adage.
The goal of “Horses sweat, men perspire, women glow” was, of course, to encourage the use of “glow” as a more refined word than “sweat” or even, in that more delicate age, “perspire.” There’s nothing really wrong with either “sweat” (from the Old English “swat”) or “perspire” (from the Latin “per spirare,” meaning “to breathe through,” in this case referring to “vapors” escaping the skin). In fact, the root “spirare” in “perspire” also gave us the word “spirit” (as in “the breath of life” or soul), so “perspire” actually has a fairly ethereal pedigree.
“Perspire” is, however, usually considered a more refined word than “sweat,” which is certainly worth knowing. That distinction is, of course, entirely arbitrary from a linguistic standpoint, but English has a long history of granting Latinate (or Anglo-French) forms higher social status than Anglo-Saxon words. Many of the words we use for livestock (“cow,” “pig,” “sheep,” etc.), for example, are short, blunt Anglo-Saxonisms of the sort used by medieval peasants, while the names of the finished products (“veal,” “beef,” “mutton,” “pork,” etc.) are rooted in the Anglo-French of the gentry who could actually afford the meat.