About that word Comey used

There’s a lot of discussion (I’m trying to be neutral, here) about FBI Director James Comey’s use of “nauseous” in the last day or two.

Pedants will shout that he should have said “nauseated,” because “nauseous” is only and ever used to mean “capable of creating nausea” (like some fumes, or some votes in the US House. But I digress).

I freely confess that I have used that argument. When I learn about a distinction I didn’t realize before, I tend to flail about with it, as one might do with a weapon they aren’t trained in. Or I did, a few years ago. The more I learn, the more I realize that I have been a PITA (Pedant In The Ass) to some folks. This is one of those cases.

Here’s a tweet from Lisa McLendon (@MadamGrammar) with a screen shot from Merriam-Webster. The usage note clearly explains that the words are indeed interchangeable, and have been for some time. The OED dates nauseous meaning “inclined to nausea” to 1604, and meaning “causing nausea” to 1612. Dates win, in my editorial book. (I haven’t written one. Don’t ask about it.)

Here’s how I handle this these days when I see “nauseous” in an editing project. If it makes sense to me, as an editor, that a character using the word is likely to care about the distinction, I suggest that in an editorial comment. Even the august Bryan A. Garner says that the usage “is becoming so common that to call it an error is to exaggerate” (Garner’s Modern English Usage, 4th edition, 2016).

We editors have more important issues to address than to worry about whether a character smells bad and makes others sick, or smells something bad that makes them sick. It’s not as if we can’t understand the intended meaning when Comey says he feels nauseous.

 

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