‘Awe’ spreads faster than dictionaries can keep up

Wendalyn Nichols wrote an awesome post yesterday for the Web site Visual Thesaurus. As an aside, the Copyediting newsletter editor mentioned the misuse of “awe,” as in “awe, cute” instead of “aw, cute.”

“Awe” comes from an Old English word “ege,” which meant “terror” or “dread.” It has largely retained that meaning, although recently it has been used in a more positive sense, first in relation to something impressive, and lately to describe anything we think is pretty good, such as a blog posting. It’s certainly overused these days, and it may be creeping into descriptions of babies and kittens. Some babies and kittens may inspire “fear or wonder” (Oxford American’s definition). but the word we’re probably looking for is “aw.”

That being said, most dictionaries I checked lack a positive sense for the word “aw.” Oxford American say “aw” first appeared in America in the 19th century and is “used to express mild protest, entreaty, commiseration, or disapproval.” None of those fit the way we use it with babies and kittens.

American Heritage includes “tenderness” in its definition. But that definition is absent in Oxford American, Webster’s New World, Merriam-Webster Unabridged, Macmillan, and the Oxford English Dictionary. So without an American Heritage Dictionary handy, we might be confused how to spell “aw, cute.”

The growing popularity of “awesome” probably influences the misspelling “awe, cute,” as well as “awe, cool” instead of “ah, cool.” (Sure, it’s spelled “ah, cool,” but it’s more often pronounced with a “w.”) American Heritage labels the use of “awesome” for “outstanding” as slang and Macmillan Dictionary notes it is “mainly used by young people.”

I would try to reserve “awe,” “awesome” and “awe-inspiring” for the truly impressive, both good and bad. We might have an easier time with “awe” if dictionaries took a new look at “aw.”

Feeling sick? Control your “nausea”

A squeamish Facebook reader left a note on my wall last night about the very common use of the word “nauseous” to mean “feeling sick” rather than “inducing a feeling of sickness.”

Hello! You’re here just in time. Today I’ve seen the word “nauseous” used in print is two separate publications. Makes me cringe. Is “nauseated” still the correct term to use to mean the feeling I get whenever I hear or see “nauseous” used instead?

“Nauseous” meaning “feeling sick” is a 20th century American invention. It’s frowned on in formal writing, but it’s very common.

Interestingly, in the Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest examples of “nauseated,” the word meant “causing nausea” (“the nauseated pleasures of luxury” from 1659). Common at the time was the verb “nauseate,” which was used with an object, often with “at,” as in “I nauseate at their improper use of English.” Toss that one out at a party for fun.

“Nauseated” for “feeling sick” seems to emerge in the 18th century. Perhaps there was no nausea-related adjective to describe the feeling before then. If you go back to the original Latin, “nauseous” meant “causing nausea.”

There is another form of the word that has been used for hundreds of years: “nauseating.” A big majority of the American Heritage usage panel preferred “nauseating” to “nauseous” in a sample sentence. So it may be that “nauseous” is being pushed out of formal writing. Something “nauseating” will make us feel “nauseated.” Or it may be that as “nauseating” replaces “nauseous,” “nauseous” will supplant “nauseated.”

I would uphold the distinction and not use “nauseous” for “nauseated” on paper, but don’t make yourself sick over it.

Sorry; that was too easy, I know, but I couldn’t resist.