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Sick, sick, sick

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April March 7, 2009 12:38 PM

In his latest column at Visual Thesaurus, Ben Zimmer looks at the continuing controversy over the proper sense of nauseous: Some readers think it should only mean "nauseating" -- "he served us a nauseous concoction" -- while others use it to mean "nauseated," as in "I'm feeling nauseous." The word has a complicated usage history, Zimmer says:

Even though nauseous in the "affected with nausea" sense has been lurking under the radar since the mid-19th century, it took until the mid-20th century for someone to assert that this meaning was wrong. MWDEU* observes that this sense of the word became a bugaboo for American usage guides after Theodore Bernstein griped about it in his 1958 book, "Watch Your Language." British usage guides, on the other hand, seem indifferent to the dispute.

I've been doing some research in old usage books, and when I read Zimmer's post, I had just seen the entry on sick in the 1872 book "Americanisms," by Maximilian Schele de Vere. His discussion of terms for nausea and vomiting is not precisely on topic, but it's close, and it's a nice description of what Steven Pinker calls the "euphemism treadmill."

Sick, in England used only for sickness of the stomach, is in America applied to indisposition of any kind, in the manner in which, as Sir C. Lyell already noticed, it was used by Shakespeare and the authors of the Liturgy of the Established Church. It is said that a Virginia lady in Europe, happening to be ill, sent for an English physician, who, hearing from her servant that she was sick, soon made his appearance with a stomach-pump and other instruments of the kind. Evelyn writes, November 16, 1652: "Visited Dean Stewart, who had been sick about two days." Pepys also employs sick in the same general sense (Diary, Vol. III., p. 264). It is curious to notice how sickness of the stomach changed in England first into nausea, which soon became vulgar and gave way to throwing up; this also fell in disfavor, and vomit was substituted, as it is used in the Bible; in its turn this gave way to puking, when the great king, with knee-buckles, silk-stockings, and gold-headed canes, also gave [the word] pukes to high-bred matrons and fastidious belles, some fifty years ago. This also was soon banished; but as people might get rid of the word but could not free themselves of the thing, they turned once more to their first love, and sickness was restored to favor.

*Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, which you really, really ought to own but can also consult online for the entire nauseating story.

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Rules and realities of English usage from Boston Globe Ideas columnist Jan Freeman.
Jan Freeman, a former Boston Globe editor, has been writing the weekly column The Word since 1997. E-mail her at

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