Nauseated vs. Nauseous

By Maeve Maddox

A reader sent me this request:

Would you please do a blast-out about the word nauseated versus nauseous?

The noun “blast-out” is new to me, but I presume it means something like the following:

a strongly worded admonition to English speakers to get the difference between these two words straight once and for all, blast it!

The more I research usage and write about it, the less inclined I am to blast out about anything, especially word pairs like nauseous and nauseated.

The supposed distinction is that people are nauseated, whereas nasty, disgusting things are nauseous. For example, women in the early stages of pregnancy often feel nauseated. A stagnant pool of foul-smelling water is nauseous.

The OED gives two definitions of the adjective nauseous:
1. Of a thing, causing nausea.
2. Of a person, affected with nausea.

For at least 179 years, English speakers have been using nauseous in the sense of “feeling the urge to throw up”:

In speaking of the effect of bloodletting, Mr. Lizars says that ‘the patient feels nauseous and sick even to vomiting’. (OED citation dated 1836).

A search on the Ngram Viewer of “feel nauseated” and “feel nauseous” shows a convergence of both terms in 2000.

In popular usage, nauseous is frequently used to mean nauseated, whereas nauseating has largely replaced it to describe disgusting objects or odors: Drivers of General Motors’ popular Chevrolet Cruze sedan are complaining that the vehicle’s new car smell is a nauseating stench.

Everyone’s entitled to defend a preferred usage, even one that’s clearly headed for extinction. One of my own language peeves is to hear the word disinterested in a context that calls for uninterested. In my heart-of-hearts, I know it’s a distinction that goes unobserved more often than not, but I’ll continue to observe it in my own writing and to recommend it to others.

Speakers to whom the distinction between nauseous and nauseated is important should observe it in their own speech and writing. Insisting that everyone do it is futile. Like civil public discourse, careful language has become a minority value. Those who care about it don’t need to be blasted; they need only to be informed.

Related Articles
What To Do About Non-standard English
”Disinterested” Is Not the Same as “Uninterested”

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3 Responses to “Nauseated vs. Nauseous”

  • thebluebird11

    I’m careful to make the distinction in my own usage, but, as with other language issues, I have long since given up correcting others (except in my job, which requires me to do so). It really does not make you any friends, and since as you see there is plenty of support for both usages, the “other” users can point to that in their own defense, and it’s a losing battle. Not worth fighting about, IMHO.

  • Kim Siever

    Thank you for this post. I don’t understand where this so-called distinction came from or why people become so pedantic about it. Nauseous has been used to mean inclined to nausea for over 300 years. 🙂

  • venqax

    I don’t think it is pedantic to point out that a word doesn’t mean what someone thinks it means. Really, it’s the word *nauseating* that is superfluous. Nauseated has always meant a feeling of nausea, and nauseous has meant (to the properly informed) causing nausea. When someone tells you he feels nauseous, just look at him intensely for a moment, hold your own abdomen, then say, “No, you’re not.” Then he can stop worrying about that and start worrying about his own nausea and feeling better himself. He will, unfailingly, thank you for putting his mind at ease in that regard. No one likes to be a burden to others. 🙂 When “changes” are made for reasons of ignorance, it does not tend to be a good thing. If the above script were employed with children when they are first learning English and have that perfect window to get it right the first time, we wouldn’t have these problems with quasi-literacy.

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