In “Summer of 4 ft. 2”, the twenty-fifth and last episode of The Simpsons’ seventh season (and also, in my opinion, one of the series’ very best offerings), the Simpsons go to stay at Ned Flanders’ beach house. Hanging out with a new set of kids, Lisa is accepted, while Bart feels left out. He tries, as only Bart can, to sabotage his sister’s new-found acceptance but fails.
“I’m dizzy!” she declares. “I’m nauseous! … But I’m popular!”
Oh, Lisa. Lisa, Lisa, Lisa. How I relate to you. Brainy. Overachieving. Geeky. Always on the margins and struggling so hard to fit in, feeling so good about yourself when you discover your new friends accept you for who you really are…
And yet that Lisa Simpson, whom I consider about as “word-nerdy” as I, would confuse these makes me downright sick.
You see, nauseous, thought to have entered English as early as the 1600s, at that time meant “inclined to nausea, easily made queasy”. Today, it is an adjective describing something that causes nausea or squeamishness. The adjective denoting the feeling “made sick” is, actually, nauseated.
Nauseated (from the Middle English nausea, from Latin, from Greek nautiā, nausiē, seasickness, from nautēs, sailor, from naus, ship) was first used in the 1630s to mean “to feel sick, to become affected with nausea”. During the early seventeenth century, the verb nauseate also had transitive sense of “to reject (food, etc.) with a feeling of nausea” and “to create loathing in”. This meaning has persisted; today, nauseated still refers to the act of feeling or causing nausea, loathing or disgust—what I feel when people use nauseated and nauseous interchangeably.
They do it quite often, in fact. The change in a word, phrase or expression over time as the result of people’s replacing an unfamiliar form with a more familiar one is known as folk etymology (from the nineteenth century academic German Volksetymologie).
Unlike real etymology, which is determined by the rules of language as they shift and change over time, folk etymology represents erroneous changes made by people who mishear words (usually foreign words) and try to make them more “English”. In this way, folk etymology doesn’t reflect natural, historical changes in words.
Careful writers use nauseated to mean “sick to the stomach” and reserve nauseous for “sickening to contemplate”.
Then again, Lisa was once heard to say “Relax? I can’t relax! Nor can I yield, relent, or… Only two synonyms? Oh, my! I’m losing my perspicacity!” Maybe she’s right.