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The Word

Gut check

Is that a lump in your stomach - or a void?

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Jan Freeman
April 27, 2008

DO YOU SOMETIMES get a funny feeling in the pit of your stomach? Or do you simply say, when you feel that way, that you have a pit in your stomach?

Linda Kidder of Essex is the latest reader (though not the only one) who feels a bit greenish when she reads the revised version of this old idiom - as she did in a recent Globe story that mentioned "that pit you feel in your stomach."

"I always thought the expression was 'a feeling in the pit of my stomach' that (for instance) the news wasn't going to be good," she wrote. The new phrase, she says, sounds "as if you have a peach pit in your stomach, which doesn't make sense."

I suppose it might make sense if you were imagining something hard and indigestible - a peach or avocado pit - stuck in your tummy. You can have a lump in your throat, a knot in your gut, a fire in the belly - why not a pit in the stomach?

But after looking at hundreds of examples of "pit in the stomach," I'm skeptical that the peach-pit image is behind the new idiom.

Most references to the pit in one's stomach are simply unrevealing. When someone says he "had a pit in my stomach every morning," there's no way to know if he's feeling a lump or a void. Sometimes, though, the sense of hollowness (or of literal hunger) is explicit: "an incredibly empty pit in my stomach," a "bottomless pit," or "a pit the size of the Grand Canyon."

You might, at a stretch, read "the pit in his stomach is growing" as a plant reference. But there aren't many instances where the pit is clearly a thing, not a void - though one blogger wrote of "that hard pit in my stomach when Dallas is playing."

We could have avoided the fruit question if Americans had simply followed British usage and called the seeds of peaches, plums, and avocados "stones." Instead we adopted a Dutch word, pit. But the gastric hollow is related to the much older pit, meaning "hole in the ground."

The original "pit of the stomach," dating from the 17th century, is the epigastric fossa, a slight depression below the breastbone, the Oxford English Dictionary explains. In its extended sense, it's the place in the upper abdomen where butterflies, knots, and other anxious feelings lodge.

Those feelings, however, stayed "in the pit of the stomach" till recently; I haven't found the sensation itself called "a pit in the stomach" before the 1970s. There are, though, some stomach pits in the earlier 20th century that may be transitional, moving from "pit of the stomach" to a "pit in the stomach," but clearly using pit to mean hole.

In the teen novel "A Date for Diane" (1946), for instance, "A pit yawned in Diane's stomach." In Lewis Padgett's "The Day He Died," published the following year, "A cold pit opened in Caroline's stomach."

As long as no fruits are involved, "a pit in my stomach" strikes me as a slight adjustment in the pit-of-my-stomach idiom. But if it's an eggcorn for you - if the pit that you feel is a big fruit seed - let me know. Or better yet, visit the online Eggcorn Database and record your evidence there.

. . .

As long as we're in the digestive area, Francis X. Roark of Chelmsford would like us to settle an argument with his daughter. He says that nauseous means "causing nausea": "The guy's boorish behavior was so nauseous that I became nauseated." She, like most people today, thinks nauseous and nauseated are interchangeable.

It's true that half a century ago, usage mavens were determined to limit nauseous to the sense "disgusting, repellent, stomach-churning." But the word has also meant "nauseated" since the 1880s, and that sense is now dominant - "so common that to call it an error is to exaggerate," according to Garner's Modern American Usage.

The American Heritage Dictionary's usage note says nauseous is used today "mainly in the sense in which it is considered incorrect. In its 'correct' sense it is being supplanted by nauseating."

William Safire conceded 16 years ago, in his New York Times language column, that everyone he knew said "I am nauseous." The Times's style guide, published in 1999, still tried to limit nauseous to "sickening," but in vain: In its last 100 appearances in the newspaper's pages, nauseous has meant "nauseating" only four times; the usual sense is "queasy."

Nauseous is still available, of course, as a slightly bookish adjective describing impersonal things: Rotten food, a gruesome sight, a hog farm might be nauseous. If you say your boss is nauseous, though, someone will run for the Rolaids. Better just stick to "he makes me sick."

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