Word Matters Podcast

Wordle Does Not Make Us Nauseous

Word Matters, episode 92

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Hosted by Emily Brewster, Ammon Shea, and Peter Sokolowski.

Produced in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Download the episode here.


Emily Brewster: Coming up on Word Matters. Does Wordle make you nauseated or nauseous? Neither we hope.

I'm Emily Brewster and Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media. On each episode, Merriam-Webster editors, Ammon Shea, Peter Sokolowski and I, explore some aspect of the English language from the dictionary's vantage point.

Emily Brewster: Some listeners want to know if working with words professionally makes a dictionary editor better or worse at Wordle. Listeners Carrie and Rune write, "This is a topic of great discussion in my household. Are you all better at Wordle because you know all the words, or worse at Wordle because you know all the words?"

Ammon Shea: I have a third option, which is that I am worse at Wordle because I don't know all the words. How about that one?

Peter Sokolowski: We don't know all the words, that's for sure.

Ammon Shea: How about just worse at Wordle, period?

Emily Brewster: How often do you absolutely fail at getting the Wordle word, Ammon?

Ammon Shea: I don't know, every couple of weeks. I'm really not good at it at all. It takes me till close to the end, and part of the problem I think is that I like obscure words. If I have the choice between train, T-R-A-I-N, or riant meaning "mirthful," I'm going to go for riant because it's just a nicer word. If I can play forte or fetor, an offensive smell, I'm going to go for fetor because the Wordle should be fetor. It shouldn't be forte and it never is. It never is fetor and it never is riant, but I like to think that it should be.

Emily Brewster: Do you think that you can somehow push the Wordle gods toward these more obscure, lovely—or not-so-lovely terms that you prefer?

Ammon Shea: No, but I'm not winning any cash or prizes from this. I've accepted that I'm not very good at it. I'm going to stick with what I like.

Emily Brewster: I think I'm only moderately successful at Wordle. I play in a text thread—my sisters and my aunt, we all report our Wordle scores, and sometimes I'm ahead and sometimes I'm not, so.

Peter Sokolowski: Well, I've never actually played it, so I don't know. The reason I've never played it is for some reason it just doesn't attract me. I love words, but it's like Scrabble, in a way, where the meaning has nothing to do with the score. People who are really good at crosswords, really good at Boggle, that recombination of letters which Ammon just described, I don't have that gift and I really think it's an amazing skill. I've been around some of the great Scrabble players and I attend the Scrabble tournaments. It's almost like magic to me that they have developed this way to look at a word as a set of constituent parts that they move around, whereas I think of it strictly connected to its meaning and its history and maybe its phonetics. I just don't break words down that way.

Peter Sokolowski: So I think I would probably just be frustrated if I did try to play these games, which is maybe for the best that I don't. But I think a lot of people ask a similar question about people who work with words the way we do. Are you good at Scrabble?, for example. I remember, I believe, a kind of Twitter conversation amongst a group of people online who have been lexicographers or who are today, a consensus was arrived that most of them don't really play Scrabble that often if ever.

Emily Brewster: Ammon, do you play Scrabble?

Ammon Shea: I used to be a competitive player. I do have that disease that Peter talks about. I cannot look at the word travel without seeing varlet. If I look at the word education, I see cautioned. I'm constantly thinking of: What does that word break down to? How can that word be reconstituted? What else does that spell? I used to play in tournaments when I was a kid. I gave it up because Scrabble really does have almost nothing to do with language. It has to do with mathematical probability, memorization, and unfettered aggression.

Peter Sokolowski: That's because you were a young player, you were basically a Scrabble hustler, if I'm not mistaken. Is that right? You would pretend not to know words and then swoop in and—

Ammon Shea: I did do nasty tricks like that in tournaments. I would wear like a Led Zeppelin T-shirt and a red plaid shirt over it. Then I'd be the idiot unschooled 13-year-old, and then do things like you play oxes because people will challenge you because I know that the plural of ox is oxen and then, of course, it turns out that when used as a pejorative, ox takes an S for plural form, and [I would] try to intentionally play words that would make people challenge you. It was mean. Like I said Scrabble's not a polite game. I would play against serious high-level players occasionally and they're just totally different creatures. There are people who don't even speak English who are phenomenal Scrabble players, because they've memorized tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands words. They can play the game far better than I ever could.

Emily Brewster: Right. I always tell people that I am disappointingly mediocre at Scrabble. I have not memorized all the two-letter and three-letter words. I have not memorized the Q words that take no U, and to be really good at Scrabble, that's what you need to do. You need to treat it like a formula. It's math.

Peter Sokolowski: I do attend the Scrabble tournaments. I remember arriving midday to one of them and I just sort of popped in to say hello. One of the organizers who is a championship level player, an old friend, and we said hello, we shook hands. I said, "Look, I'm going to grab some lunch. Do you have a recommendation?" Because he had been in the town a little bit and he looked into the middle distance and he said, "Yeah, around the corner, eight letters, starts with M." He was absolutely honest. He couldn't remember the name of the restaurant, but he remembered that and he was right. I forget what it was, but I thought, "Well, that's exactly the way you think about these things and I love it." I think it's terrific. It's just not the way my mind works.

Emily Brewster: I have to say that I'm a little resentful of Wordle. I was seeing people talking about Wordle on the Twitter and on the Facebook, and though I'm not going to go there. I'm not going to play that game. Then I started playing it and it was fun, and now I play it every day.

Emily Brewster: The nice thing about it for me is that there's only one to do. You can't waste a lot of time on Wordle. Because when it's done, it's done. I have found that it was actually a gateway game for me. Now I also daily play Quordle, which is four Wordle puzzles at once. You get nine chances to guess four distinct words. I'm not actually happy how Wordle has affected my gaming life. I was maybe better off not playing word games daily.

Peter Sokolowski: Because Wordle is a word game, people turn to the dictionary. I don't know if it's for help or just to confirm five letters in this order is a word. But as a consequence in our dictionary data, we often see five-letter words that are not only spiking, but accumulating. There was one point a couple months ago where our homepage, which displays the top 10 lookups that are refreshed every 30 seconds, so you can kind of see a progression of current curiosity often that's connected to the news of the day or weather events or something. But in this case, number one was hodge, number two was podge, number three was bodge, and number four was dodge. Clearly, this was a sequence of Wordle clues. The problem here, of course, is if you want to play in the proper way, you don't necessarily want to have these spoilers or these clues.

Emily Brewster: As we were getting ready to record this segment, I had not yet completed the day's Wordle. I went to our homepage, I had only entered two words and I saw today's winning word. So if you don't want to spoil your Wordle fun, you should not look at our homepage until you've completed the puzzle.

Peter Sokolowski: That's right. But it shows the unbelievable richness of vocabulary for five-letter words in English.

Emily Brewster: Absolutely. One thing about Wordle is that the Wordle word does not tend to be an obscure, lovely word that only Ammon knows.

Peter Sokolowski: But it does tell us something that these are so immensely popular, words attract people for different reasons and in different ways, and I'd celebrate that for sure.

Emily Brewster: And it is fun.

Emily Brewster: You're listening to Word Matters. I'm Emily Brewster. Up ahead, we have more of your questions. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Peter Sokolowski: Word Matters listeners get 25% off all dictionaries and books at shop.merriam-webster.com by using the promo code Matters at checkout. That's Matters, M-A-T-T-E-R-S, at shop.merriam-webster.com

Ammon Shea: I'm Ammon Shea. Do you have a question about the origin, history or meaning of a word? Email us at wordmatters@m-w.com.

Peter Sokolowski: I'm Peter Sokolowski. Join me every day for the word of the day, a brief look at the history and definition of one word available at merriam-webster.com, or wherever you get your podcasts. For more podcasts from New England Public Media, visit the NEPM podcast hub at nepm.org.

Emily Brewster: A listener wants us to weigh in on the difference between nauseated and nauseous, which doesn't turn our stomachs in the least. Susan writes to ask, "My mother, who was a physician, always insisted on using the term nauseated to describe an upset stomach. She would say that nauseous meant that you are making other people feel sick, but everyone uses nauseous to mean "sick to their stomach." Has that word migrated from its original definition?" I would say, yes, it has. This is a usage issue that I was certainly raised with. The idea is that nauseous can only mean "causing nausea," as in "that is a nauseous smell," or "a nauseous idea," and a nauseous person would be someone who actually causes you a physical discomfort. The prescribed usage is that if you feel sick, you should say that you are nauseated, not nauseous.

Emily Brewster: This disputed use, this "I feel nauseous," or "I'm nauseous"—that dates to the early 19th century. I think of the OED's date for that particular usage, the earliest example that they have is from 1839, but it really didn't become common until the mid 20th century, it seems. This means that the disputed use is actually, it's about 200 years old almost. But it also means that it's 200 years newer than the earliest uses, because the earliest use of nauseous was in the 17th century. It was used to describe someone who tends to be sick, so this "My poor nauseous child often feels sick."

Emily Brewster: Then it was used to describe something that causes nausea, which is the use that is still prescribed today, and then it was used to describe a nasty flavor or a smell—that sense still exists—and also to describe something that is repulsive or loathsome. "A nauseous feeling," that dates also to the 18th century. How do you two feel about nauseous and nauseated?

Ammon Shea: I feel pretty good.

Emily Brewster: You don't feel nauseous about it?

Ammon Shea: Not at all, no, no. I am totally comfortable with either one. I have heard of this distinction and I choose not to observe it in my own speech and writing. I consider it at this point in time a near meaningless distinction, because I think it is quite clear from context, whether one is feeling the nausea are inflicting it.

Emily Brewster: Yes. Also, the word nauseous, meaning "causing someone to feel sick," that role is more often communicated by the word nauseating now, isn't it?

Ammon Shea: True, yep. I think that it's also quite clear in that if something is causing nausea, it is typically an agent, not a person. So "that food is nauseating," you could say, or "it made me feel nauseous." I don't see anything that's unclear about that use of nauseous.

Peter Sokolowski: Ammon is, of course, correct. Because no one is going to misunderstand if you use these words. I feel like this is another case of the very convenient and attractive application of logic to linguistics where the linguistics don't support it whatsoever, but it's comforting to many people to have a logical distinction, like with further and farther, for example. There's no etymological reason. They're identical words, and yet it's a convenient breakdown of the meanings. One is literal distance, one is metaphorical in the case of further and farther.

Peter Sokolowski: In nauseated and nauseous, I feel is like that. It's never going to be misunderstood. At the same time, some people like this kind of precision, but they're imposing it. It's important to know that you're choosing to make this kind of razor-thin distinction, and I think I do make this distinction. I do make further and farther also, but I just find it's an easy way to think about these words and kind of reminds me, "Oh, yes, there are two of these." When you get right down to it, of course, Ammon is right. No one's going to misunderstand if you use nauseated or nauseous.

Emily Brewster: I think it's interesting that the writer notes that the person who made this distinction was her mother who was a physician. Certainly, if your field employs a certain term in a very specialized context, that term to you can offend your sensibilities. If people are using a term that has this very particular designation in your field and you hear people using it in a way that is imprecise or that goes against that particular meaning, I can certainly understand how it would be irksome.

Peter Sokolowski: It's all about authority ultimately—if someone who is in the field knows the vocabulary. People look to the dictionary often as upholders of this distinction, whereas what we do is reflect the actual usage which may in these cases be not a definitive answer for anybody.

Emily Brewster: Right.

Ammon Shea: We talk as lexicographers about how it's not so important to observe these distinctions in general use. People understand what they mean, and I think that's true. But we also do have to acknowledge that in jargon, in certain fields that these distinctions do make a great difference. So for instance, we define concrete and cement as largely interchangeable because that is how people use them. However, if you are building a house or you're building a road, it is worth making the distinction between these two aggregate forms.

Ammon Shea: Likewise, if you're a physician, as you pointed out, Emily, I think there are a number of cases in which these distinctions may in fact be very important. So that's not to say that you should have to distinguish between them and every other form of spoken or read in English, but that there are very specific ways in which, yes, distinctions can be very, very important.

Emily Brewster: I can certainly understand the doctor wanting to know that a nauseous patient—is that a patient who is making the staff nauseous, making the staff nauseated?, or is that a patient who is feeling sick to their stomach?

Emily Brewster: It's interesting to me that nauseous is increasingly doing the job of filling in figurative use. As I said a few minutes ago of nauseating, it's more frequently the word that is used to describe something that makes a person feel unwell, and nauseous is finding its home more often in contexts that have to do with the figurative use. So "nauseous corruption" or "nauseous hypocrisy" is that which turns our stomachs figuratively. I think that's a very interesting development.

Emily Brewster: The fact is that the words, their meanings are moving targets. They're constantly shifting and if it gets used in one context, in one collocation that might be very evocative, and then that collocation can take off. We've got phrases like "nauseous hypocrisy" that will then push a word's meaning in a particular direction if it has the right ring to it.

Peter Sokolowski: It's interesting to see Noah Webster himself in 1828, his definition of nauseous says, "Loathsome, disgustful, disgusting, regarded with abhorrent," and that could be taken to be figurative just as you described, Emily, but then he adds "as a nauseous drug or medicine." I have often found in reading older definitions, sometimes they seem to be kind of idioms rather than the plain language that we try to use today to make it clear that this is not a figurative use. But in this case, his definition seems figurative, but then his little usage example is literal.

Emily Brewster: That's funny. The word nausea, it's related to nautical. So the idea of seasickness is right in there.

Peter Sokolowski: Well, this is an amazing thing because nautical and nausea that the N-A-U in there. But, of course, there's also the N-A-V and V and U were often interchangeable in pre-typeset society. So this is the same route as the words navy, naval and navigation, because navigation means "to direct your boat" originally and, of course, nausea meant "sick from motion." So all of these words are actually connected at their etymological root. It makes perfect sense that you would connect these things, but they're not completely transparent. These are kind of hidden in plain sight.

Emily Brewster: Of course, they're also then related to words like astronaut. That naut meaning "sailor" comes from the Greek nautis, meaning "sailor," is the same naut that is in astronaut.

Peter Sokolowski: Yep, so that's an amazing root.

Emily Brewster: Let us know what you think about Word Matters. Review us wherever you get your podcasts or email us at wordmatters@m-w.com. You can also visit us at nepm.org, and for the word of the day and all your general dictionary needs visit merriam-webster.com. Our theme music is by Tobias Voigt, artwork by Annie Jacobson. Word matters is produced by John Voci. For Ammon Shea and Peter Sokolowski, I'm Emily Brewster. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

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