Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.
It’s one of those little coincidences of language evolution that the word nausea — which has the word sea in it right there in plain English — comes from a word referring to sea-sickness. But it isn’t the –sea part of the word that marks its maritime beginnings.
Ancient Greek sailors (and probably those who failed to become sailors) probably noticed early on that the movement aboard a ship on rough seas could sometimes lead to that sickening feeling. That ship was called, in Greek, naus, and so they called that uncomfortable sensation nausia, literally “ship sickness.” This became nausea in Latin, and referred specifically to seasickness to the ancient Romans.
The word eventually made it into English, unaltered from the Latin (probably because it was used in medicine, and Latin was long the language of the educated). Perhaps strangely, the word never seems to have been restricted to seagoing sickness in English. Since it entered the language in the early 15th century, English speakers have been using it to refer to gastric queasiness whether it occurred on land, sea, or (later) air.
That Greek naus is the root of a number of other common English words related to the sea — like nautical and nautilus — and (at least metaphorically) to sailing, including the last syllable of astronaut and cosmonaut.
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