Ad nauseum ad nauseam

Ad nauseum is a very common misspelling of ad nauseam, even among careful writers. It’s a subtle enough error to slip past the copy editors of reputable publications (recently here, for example, until a commenter pointed it out). The wayward spelling ad nausea also appears, sometimes as a joke. I mentioned ad nauseam before, along with a mnemonic to commit the correct form to memory, but the prevalence of ad nauseum suggests the need for a dedicated post; some background information might help.

Ad nauseam is an adverbial phrase, clearly Latin: ad here means to; nauseam is nausea in the accusative. So ad nauseam means to (sea-)sickness, i.e., to a nauseating or sickening extent, often figurative for “to a very tiresome or boring degree”. To do anything ad nauseam is to be sick of doing it. The phrase is said to originate from argumentum ad nauseam, a term in logic similar in sense to argumentum ad infinitum. It has been used in English since the 17C.; there’s a slightly earlier form, usque ad nauseam or ad nauseam usque (all the way to nausea, i.e., to the point of nausea), which is rarely encountered nowadays.

The difficulty with spelling ad nauseam probably results partly from its Latin origin: we recognise its Latin-ness but associate the language more with -um endings. There’s also the indistinct pronunciation: though it’s correctly pronounced /ad ‘nɔːzɪam, -sɪam/, the closing /-am/ is often rendered as /-ɘm/. The unstressed vowel sound ɘ is a schwa, known in Spelling Bee circles as “the dreaded schwa” because it’s so difficult to guess which vowel lies behind it. Thus it is with ad nauseam. To remember the spelling, think of nausea. Or more elaborately, say to yourself: “I am nauseated not to know.” If you think it might be -um, consider ummm a hint that you should keep wondering about it another moment, until you think: “Ah! Now I am sure: it’s ad nauseam.”

Google search hits shouldn’t be taken literally, but they can offer a crude indication of popularity; and a comparison today shows the erroneous form topping the traditional by 530,000 to 476,000. I could say I see ad nauseum ad nauseam, but that would be an overstatement. (Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with exaggeration.) It’s possible that ad nauseum will eventually be accepted as standard — English is not Latin, after all — but for now I advise the use of the standard spelling ad nauseam.

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9 Responses to Ad nauseum ad nauseam

  1. Stan, as I am not succeeding in receiving your e-mail address, may I use this posting to request permission to reprint this column (and others from your blog), in English and/or French, on my blog: http://www.Le-mot-juste-en-anglais.com I would naturally give you credit and provide a link to your blog.

    Best wishes
    Jonathan

  2. AH a minor error. I suppose nauseum could replace nauseam

  3. Stan says:

    Jonathan: I appreciate your interest, but no: you may not reprint this article (or other articles I’ve written) on your blog. But you may mention it, with a link. When you asked for my e-mail address on 21 June, I supplied it — it’s in the comment directly beneath yours on the Queen’s English Society post. When you asked again, I showed you where I had responded, and I said it was also available on the About page. I’m confused by your confusion. So I’ll try Plan A again: my e-mail address is stancarey1 [at]gmail.com.

    Jams: A minor error indeed, but it’s no harm to be aware of it.

  4. Tim says:

    Ah, online misspellings ad nauseam. I avoid Latin terms when I can help it. After all, I have no background in Latin save for my high school mottos.

    What’s that, Firefox? You don’t like my pluralisation of motto? Or my use of -s instead of -z in that suffix? Well, you don’t like my Latin either, so let’s call it mutually agreeing to disagree, shall we.

    I attended two different secondary schools. The first had ad alta (to the highest) as its motto; the second used semper fidelis (always faithful). That’s the extent of my Latin knowledge, aside from the most common abbreviations and acronyms, most of which I wouldn’t have a clue about their expanded forms.

    I honestly would have thought that it would be ad nauseum. I shall endeavour (silly Firefox) to remember that it is ad nauseam. Of that, I am certain.

    Thanks for yet another great post, Stan. :)

  5. Stan says:

    You’re welcome, Tim. Thanks for reading! A computer spellchecker, whether in Firefox, Word or wherever, is a mixed blessing. For people who can spell well, it’s probably more trouble than it’s worth. Contrary to the poem written in its honour, I haven’t found that it “freeze yew lodes of thyme”.

    My knowledge of Latin is very limited. Maybe some day I’ll find time to learn more of it. Bryan Garner’s Dictionary of Modern American Usage (1998) has a very useful short entry on Latin words and phrases. He divides them into six categories, summarised as follows:

    (1) Latinisms so common they’re barely recognisable as Latin, e.g. bonus, vice versa; (2) abbreviations in scholarly contexts, e.g. ibid.; (3) jargon used by doctors, lawyers, and scientists, e.g. metatarsus; (4) mottoes and maxims, esp. in ceremonial contexts, e.g. Sic transit gloria mundi; (5) Latinisms that literate people know and occasionally find useful, e.g. ipse dixit, mutatis mutandis; (6) rare ones that characterise sesquipedality, e.g. ceteris paribus. Garner writes that unless you’re sure of your audience’s erudition, categories 3–6 are “dangerous territory”.

  6. You’re quite right Stan

  7. Claudia says:

    I think that Latin is much closer to French than to English. In any case, to obtain my Baccalauréat es Arts, I had to study Classical Greek and Latin. I forgot the Greek alphabet in a hurry. But it has been harder to let go of Ceasar, “De Bello Gallico”. I remember hours of translating what was then called the most ingenuous way of conducting a war. It was an ad nauseam labour. Except for the Si vis pacem, para bellum, which meant for me to be ready for all problems life could bring, I avoid using Latin simply out of boredom. Even the Amo, amas, amat (that so many people quote) loses its romanticism when one has to memorise the whole conjugaison. Why use Latin when our own language has the right expressions to express our feelings? J’en ai des nausées est plus éloquent pour moi que ad nauseam. But I agree with you. If you use it, spell it right!

  8. Stan says:

    Claudia: I agree that there’s little or no need to use Latin when English (or French, or whatever one’s language) can supply the necessary sense — unless a pretentious or highbrow effect is deliberately sought. Ad nauseam is handy in English, though, and quite commonly used. Its tidy concision and semi-formal tone sometimes suit the writing better than a more familiar phrase.

    I don’t think I’ve ever used J’en ai des nausées, but I remember putting j’en ai marre to good use after learning that it meant, more or less, “I’m sick of it” or “I’m fed up of it”.

  9. Tim Church says:

    Should mention argumentum ad absurdum as well.

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