The Elements of Silly.

Dear Word Detective: What’s the state-of-the-art on “nauseous”? I was told that it was a synonym for “nauseating,” not “nauseated,” but the Merriam-Webster dictionary seems to have given up on that. I saw it used in no less prestigious a source than The Economist to mean “nauseated.” Not that etymology will ever stand in the way of practice, but I’d at least like to know if this actually a change, or if it was just somebody being pedantic. — Joshua Engel.

Oh boy, a usage question. Let’s see how many people I can tick off this time. If I play my cards right, half my own family won’t be speaking to me when I’m done.

Long story short? The “rule” concerning “nauseous” and “nauseated” that you (and nearly everyone else) encountered in school is without either logical substance or historical justification. It is and always was “just somebody being pedantic” (albeit a lot of somebodies in a lot of grammar books).

It is true that the root of “nauseous” is the Latin “nauseosus,” meaning “causing nausea,” which would tend to buttress the traditional “puce wallpaper is nauseous; people seeing it become nauseated” school of thought. But, as you note, etymology is not destiny, and most of our English words have wandered far from their origins, so the Latin “nauseosus” is not a compelling argument.

A glance at the actual use of “nauseous” in the history of written English leaves the “nauseous means nauseating” camp with a problem. The Oxford English Dictionary dates the “causing nausea” usage to 1628, but lists the meaning “inclined to sickness or nausea; squeamish” to fifteen years earlier, in 1613. So the claim that the “causing nausea” meaning is the pure original meaning won’t fly.

More importantly, most of the objections to the use of “nauseous” to mean “feeling ill” have arisen only since the end of World War II, but (according to the excellent Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage) the actual use of “nauseous” in the supposedly proper “makes-me-sick” sense has dropped sharply in learned prose since before WW II and almost everyone today uses “nauseating.” Even E.B. White, after reciting the standard “rule” about nauseous/nauseated in Strunk & White’s revered Elements of Style (1979), lapsed into using “nauseating” rather than “nauseous” elsewhere in his own book.

As it stands now in the real world, “nauseating” is doing the duty of meaning “causing nausea or disgust,” and “nauseous” is almost always used as a synonym of “nauseated” to mean “feeling sick or disgusted.” The only danger in using “nauseous” to mean “feeling sick” is that you may run into people who are erroneously convinced that the usage is wrong, which brings us to one of those Dirty Harry moments: Are you feeling lucky?

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