Eww. Eww eww eww.
Dear Word Detective: After hearing someone accused of being “squeamish” because they didn’t like modern blood and gore movies, the word started to buzz around my head like something from the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. How odd, I thought. What is a “squeam”? Can one “squeam”? As is often the case, my dictionary came up with a metaphorical Gallic shrug of the shoulders, or “dunno” in modern idiom, so I wonder if you can shed any light on it. — David, Ripon, North Yorkshire, England.
In space, you know, no one can hear you squeam. Hmm. Although it doesn’t object to the lameness of that line, my spellchecker adamantly denies the existence of a verb “to squeam,” which is a shame. I can imagine all sorts of places it would come in handy: emergency rooms, sausage factories and televised awards ceremonies, just for starters. Incidentally, as someone who rigorously avoids the “slasher-horror” movie genre, I’d chalk up my objections to “boredom,” not “sqeamishness.” The best horror movie I’ve seen in the past few years was “The Others,” a truly fascinating, deeply creepy and almost entirely blood-free film. There’s a huge difference between being scary and being merely startling.
The American Heritage Dictionary defines “squeamish” as meaning “easily nauseated or sickened; nauseated,” “easily shocked or disgusted,” or “excessively fastidious or scrupulous.” The Oxford English Dictionary adds “distant, reserved, coy, cold” (“A woman of virtue keeps a guard upon her eye, and yet don’t affect to look soure, squeamish, and suspicious,” 1710). “Squeamish” covers a lot of territory and varies with context. While most of us would feel “squeamish” in an operating room, the truly refined, it seems, turn green at the gills when presented with substandard bottle of wine.
“Squeamish” first appeared in print in English in the 15th century, with the spelling “squaymysch” (other spellings since have included “squaimish,” “sweamish,” and the nifty dialect form “skeemish”). The origin of “squeamish” is, strictly speaking, very simple: it’s a modification of the now largely obsolete word “squeamous,” which is about two centuries older in English and meant pretty much the same thing as “squeamish.” That “squeamous,” in turn, came from the Anglo-French “escoymous,” but here we have hit a brick wall, etymologically speaking, because no one knows where “escoymous” came from or exactly what it meant. At all. Not a clue. Game over.
I always feel a bit guilty when I hit this sort of dead-end, although it isn’t really my fault that folks weren’t taking proper lexicographic notes back in the 13th century. So I though I’d make up for it by explaining the origin of “queasy,” a word in the same bilious ballpark as “squeamish,” meaning “nauseated, easily nauseated or causing nausea” and “uneasy, troubled.” Unfortunately, the origins of “queasy,” which also first appeared in the 15th century, are similarly cloudy. The problem with “queasy” is that in its early days it was spelled in a variety of ways, which makes tracing its genealogy difficult. Probably the best candidate for a source of “queasy” is a Scandinavian root meaning “boil” (the blister kind), possibly based on an Old French word meaning “to wound” or “make uneasy.”
So now we have two mysteries, but the good news is that we also have two very useful words.