A Noisome Joy

Another word that doesn’t mean what it looks like it means

Think of all the words that don’t mean what their spellings seem to indicate they mean—among the ones already discussed here are “enormity,” which , in proper usage, doesn’t refer to something merely large, but to something large and evil; “fulsome,” which doesn’t mean abundant, but excessive and insincere; and “fortuitous,” which doesn’t mean something is lucky, but merely that it happened by chance.

Their misuse is widespread enough that many dictionaries are throwing in the towel and moving from “proper” usage toward popular usage—some begrudgingly, others more welcoming.

Let us add to that list “noisome.” Not a word that appears frequently, to be sure, but it’s natural to think it must have something to do with “noise.” Music critics in particular seem to have adopted it to describe loud, clashing music.

But look at the 91st Psalm, which says: “I will say of the Lord, He is my refuge and my fortress: my God; in him will I trust. Surely he shall deliver thee from the snare of the fowler, and from the noisome pestilence.”

Few pestilences are noisy—locusts excepted—so “noisome” must mean something else.

The above phrasing is from the King James Bible. Here is the same passage from the New American Standard Bible: “I will say to the Lord, ‘My refuge and my fortress, My God, in whom I trust!’ For it is He who delivers you from the snare of the trapper And from the deadly pestilence.”

Hmm. Pestilences are more often deadly than noisy, so “noisome” must have something to do with death.

Now take this complaint about a pig farm, where the plaintiffs said it “may be harmful to the inhabitants of the town, dangerous to the public health and/or attended by noisome and injurious odors.”

Things clearing up a bit? Just wait.

“Noisome,” in Webster’s New World College Dictionary, means “injurious to health; harmful” or “having a bad odor; foul-smelling.” The New Oxford American Dictionary reverses those, giving “an extremely offensive smell” top billing and downgrading “injurious” to something merely “disagreeable, unpleasant.” So “noisome” is already losing some punch from its Biblical meaning.

If “noisome” is used to mean “annoyingly noisy” enough times, dictionaries will start accepting that definition. And, truth be told, it wouldn’t be the first time: the Oxford English Dictionary even lists “noisy, esp. unpleasantly or annoyingly so” as its fifth (but obsolete) definition of “noisome,” with citations from 1839. And since the root of “noisome” is from an obscure shortened form of “annoy,” things will again have come full circle. Keep listening.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.