In a Word: Enthused about Enthusiasm?

‘Enthusiasm’ comes from a holy place; ‘enthuse’ not so much.

A very enthusiastic priest

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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.

In a religious context, a person who shows excessive fervor or energy — especially when it comes on suddenly and unexpectedly — might appear to have been possessed by the spirit of God (or of a god). In Greek, you might say that such a person has god (theos) in (en) them: The adjective entheos meant “to be inspired or possessed by God.” This adjective led to the verb form enthousiazein, which progressed into the noun form enthousiasmos.

When this word was borrowed into English — as enthusiasm — around 1600, it still retained this link to religious zeal. In fact, in the middle of that century, the word was considered derogatory among Puritans, indicating an excessive religious emotion derived from a belief in a direct, personal connection with God. Speaking in tongues, for instance, would have been considered enthusiastic, and not a good thing.

By the 18th century, though, the word had become largely secularized, and one could have enthusiasm for all manner of nonreligious subjects, from phrenology to velocipedes.

The verb enthuse is a back-formation from enthusiasm, and its use irritates some people (myself included). Back-formations — words created by removing a (real or supposed) prefix or suffix from an established word — often have a hard time gaining acceptance when they first appear. But even the staunchest language snoots use many every day without blinking an eye. For example: diagnose (from diagnosis), escalate (from escalator), and, hitting closer to home, edit (from editor).

But we are far from when enthuse first appeared; its earliest known written use is from a personal letter written in 1827 — the earliest days of The Saturday Evening Post. Merriam-Webster Dictionaries notes that language mavens have disapproved of the word since the 1870s.

If back-formations are common, and this word is so old, what’s with all the disapproval? I see two reasons writers and editors find it irksome:

First, there is some ambiguity to the meaning of enthuse. If one is enthusiastic, it means one’s inner state is showing on the outside. Enthused seems to limit the sense to just the outward show. “Eric enthused about the antique phones” means that Eric showed enthusiasm, but it doesn’t necessarily imply that he was actually enthusiastic. (And yes, this ambiguity could be desirable in some situations.)

Second, the word often appears in a participial form and as a simple replacement for the older and more established enthusiastic: “Eric is enthused” means “Eric is enthusiastic.” English speakers are certainly no strangers to overly similar synonyms (don’t get me started on preventive and preventative), the wholly adjective form is preferred — at least to word nerds who are like me — to the inflected verb form.

So yes, enthuse is a perfectly cromulent word, but I’m not enthusiastic about using it.

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Comments

  1. Interesting history of this word, enthusiasm, which kind of has an enthusiastic vibe to it.

    I think ‘enthused’ is okay, but is weaker than ‘enthusiastic’ or ‘enthusiasm’.

    I agree with you on ‘enthuse’. It kind of takes it down to almost a non-word. The variations are telling as to your level of enthusiasm, or not.

  2. I remember when my daughter came home one day from pre-school in the late-1980s/early-1990s and she was so excited that her teacher called her “enthusiastic.” In her mind, she was the “stuff” that day. Of course, in my mind and heart she has always been the “stuff” and forever will be.

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