Shades of Meaning: nauseous, nauseated

This shows the quality of Year 11 students I currently teach. Imagine the following scene, if you will.

You are a sixteen year old girl.

You have woken up unwell: your throat hurts to swallow, your voice is croaky, your stomach aches, your head burns. All the tell tale signs of a growing cold.

Your mother asks if you want to stay home but you say “Mother, no! I must go to school! I have a drama performance to make and can’t let anyone down!”

You struggle into school (incidentally speaking to and infecting your tutor for which I will never forgive you) and in a mathematics lesson you ask to step outside because you’ve started to feel sick and hot and the walls seem to be closing in on you. Whilst taking a breath of cool fresh air the aforementioned tutor walks by and, concerned, asks how you are.

As a result of this innocent, concerned question (in addition to continuing to breathe on me and infecting me further) you choose to ponder whether to use the word nauseous or nauseated.

Well, which should you use? What’s the difference?

Both words obvious describe the same feeling: a sudden and imminent urge to revisit your last two meals, with added carrot chunks! Both clearly derive from the Latin noun nausea and apparently ultimately from the Greek ναυσίη.

Nauseous then is the adjectival form of the noun. When we are simply feeling unwell, this seems to me to be the word to use. When we genuinely and literally feel on the verge of up chucking (what an god awful phrase, brought to you from the people who created Ben 10!), we feel nauseous.

To nauseate is the verb form of nausea, meaning to cause in another person a feeling of sickness. We use it much more figuratively: bad jokes, offensive comments, horrific news items could all nauseate us without being in danger of genuinely vomiting. Some of my jokes have that effect on the lovely Mrs P!

To be nauseated therefore seems to me the passive form of the verb, albeit used adjectivally. It suggests that the cause of our sickness is external not internal; that the sickness itself may be more metaphorical, perhaps more accurately described as horror or disgust. It’s also an odd word: whilst it means a feeling of sickness and implies a deep, visceral reaction to something, it is a word that has become so mired in a medical and clinical register that it seems quite distant.


2 thoughts on “Shades of Meaning: nauseous, nauseated

  1. This has little to do with your semantic reflections, but after twenty plus years I have yet to forgive the ten year old who was off with mumps for five days, came back too early and laid me low for five weeks!


    1. Oh I know the feeling! Why do kids throw things off in a blink of an eye whilst we lie insensate for weeks?! So many things I WILL degrade my children with: my son throwing up all over me – I repeat, over me, projectile style, from a different room! I do have to be careful though, having squeezed my daughter’s first chickenpox spot and then sent her to school unaware that I had scarred her for life… In the middle of her forehead! Oops!


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