Should medical journals use the term nauseous, nauseated, or nauseating?

by Phil Sefton

Writers and editors rushing to meet deadlines know the feeling. The effects of stress, a few too many cups of coffee, and perhaps a candy bar or bag of chips in place of a meal can conspire to make the most steely-nerved wordsmith feel a tad nauseated. Or is it nauseous? And what of that stress, that coffee, that ill-chosen meal replacement—are its effects nauseating or nauseous?

Grammarians with more prescriptive leanings (ie, those concerned with language as it “should” be used, which presumably would include most writers and editors) would say that a person feels nauseated and that which has made him or her feel that way is nauseous. Those with more descriptive leanings (those concerned with language as it is actually used, which includes professional linguists as well as armchair observers of language) are eager to point out that while nauseated is still more often used to mean feeling the effects of nausea, the use of nauseous in that subjective sense is rapidly gaining acceptance. Similarly, while nauseous is still more often used to mean causing nausea, the use of nauseating in that causative sense will soon be more prevalent, if it is not already. Debates on the merits of prescriptive vs descriptive use of these terms can be quite heated, and current dictionaries and usage guides often attempt to walk a line between the two camps—which, considering the potential for rancor, is probably not a bad idea, particularly taking into account the ever-evolving nature of language as well as the history of these terms.

So first, a little history. Despite the pronouncements of some prescriptive grammarians promoting the idea that nauseous, when used to mean “feeling the effects of nausea,” is yet another example of a weed newly sprung up in the garden of educated usage, it appears that the term was used in that sense as early as 1604. What is more, it was likely not used to mean “causing nausea” until 1612 or later. At some point, the rule was set forth dictating that nauseous should be used to indicate causing nausea and nauseated to indicate the subjective feeling of nausea—a rule that for the most part held sway until the mid-20th century, when nauseous once again began to be used by persons describing how they feel.

Nauseous, then, when used to describe the feeling of nausea, is something of a grammatical atavism, a throwback to an earlier usage that seems to have fallen into disfavor in the intervening centuries. The term has regained its original meaning in a few generations, a resurrection only accelerated by today’s fast-paced media mix. For example, when comedian Mike Myers’ Saturday Night Live character, Linda Richman, claimed that something “makes me nauseous” (always pronounced as two syllables, with the slightest of pauses when pronouncing the first: “naaw′ shus”), the use of the term in that sense gathered steam in short order, gaining an ever-widening circulation as viewers of the program used it in conversation and e-mails; it likely now lives a healthy and happy life in the various social networking media. Other related terms from the 17th century—nauseation, nauseative, nauseity, nausity—are now obsolete or used very rarely, but for now nauseous as used to describe the subjective state of nausea seems here to stay.

So how does all of this pan out for the person seeking guidance on the use of nauseous, nauseated, and nauseating? As is often the case, an answer—very seldom is there such a thing as the answer—lies in the ever-shifting borders between the spoken and the written word. Whereas the use of nauseous in the subjective sense when speaking now seems a given, nauseated is still holding its own in text. Conversely, the use of nauseous to indicate the cause of nausea is rapidly falling into disuse in spoken conversation (and when it is used, it is sometimes confused with noxious), whereas it maintains only a rapidly diminishing tenuous lead over nauseating in text.

Accordingly, JAMA and the Archives Journals very seldom use nauseous in the causative sense and not at all in the subjective sense (unless part of quoted material); nauseating is used for the former and nauseated for the latter, at least until the dust has settled on another generation or two of language evolution. In the meantime, writers and editors rushing to meet deadlines are encouraged to take steps to eliminate or reduce stress, consume coffee in moderation, and make prudent dietary choices if skipping meals.

Phil Sefton is a Senior Manuscript Editor at JAMA and contributes to the AMA Manual of Style site. This post originally appeared in the Oxford University Press blog.

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