language corner

Bodily Functions

The scent of a language
September 12, 2011

The scene may have been a long coach ride or a London park bench on a hot day, but the heart of the (probably apocryphal) anecdote about Dr. Samuel Johnson remains the same: A woman of some means says to a sweating Johnson, “Sir, you smell.” Johnson replies, “No, Madame. You smell. I stink.”

In the anecdote, Johnson’s point, probably lost on the woman, is that, in the “proper” usage of his time (the eighteenth century), “smell” was an intransitive verb, meaning it lacked an object. The emission of a flower (or Johnson) was a “smell,” a noun, but the verb “smell” was the act of detecting such an emission, not the act of emission itself.

The anecdote is often used to explain the difference between transitive and intransitive verbs, even though it was not really true, even at the time. “Smell” as a transitive verb is completely legitimate, so the woman could approach Johnson today without reproach, and both could smell to their hearts’ content. (The past tense of “smell” in the United States is “smelled,” by the way. “Smelt” is the British past tense, as well as the present tense of a verb meaning “to fuse,” and a small freshwater fish.)

But there are other words that have not yet benefited from such farsightedness. Today, if you tell someone you are “nauseous,” while most people would step carefully away, some might just correct you.

“Nauseous,” in careful usage, means causing nausea, not being afflicted by it. The smelly Samuel Johnson was “nauseous”; if you feel queasy, you’re “nauseated.” Yet enough people have been “nauseous” to bring it close to proper English: It’s at Stage 4 on the five-stage Language-Change Index in Garner’s Modern American Usage, and most dictionaries fully accept “nauseous” to be both the inducer and the inducee. Be sure your context makes it clear which one you mean to avoid making readers sick to their stomachs.

If you follow language, you’ve probably seen that distinction “ad nauseum.” And you’ve probably seen that spelling a lot, too: more than sixty times in the past three months in Nexis, versus more than 250 for the correct spelling, “ad nauseam.” It’s one of those tricky Latinate spellings that can make one’s tummy hurt to keep straight. Just remember that there’s no “um” in “ad nauseam.”

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Then there’s “birth.” It’s usually accompanied by a verb, most often “give,” but it also has had a long and full life as a verb in its own right. While most people know of it only in a dialectical sense (“Miss Scarlett, I don’t know nothing about birthing no babies!”), it was quite common in the Middle Ages. People say they “parent” a child, so why can’t a woman “birth” one? Some will scoff at that use, but Garner’s, which lists “birth” as a verb, at Stage 4 as well, says “given its usefulness and long standing in the language, it should be accepted as standard.” In fact, many dictionaries list it as both a transitive and intransitive verb, without note.

Maybe we can call the people who object to “birth” as a verb as “antibirthers.” Or maybe not.

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