June 01, 2005

Fearful (also nauseous, addictive, dubious, suspicious...) symmetry

In a recent post, I asked for examples of adjectives that have switched from modifying the cause of an experience to modifying the experiencer. For example, if substance X induces nausea in person Z, then person Z is nauseated and substance X is nauseous; but then, for many people, it's person Z that is nauseous. Or, if substance X induces addiction in person Z, then person Z is addicted to substance X and substance X is addictive; but then, for some people, person Z is addictive to substance X.


X induces Y/noun in Z (or X causes Z to experience Y/noun)
which can be expressed as
Z is Y/verb-ed or X makes Z Y/verb-ed
X is Y/adjective

... → Z is (or becomes) Y-adjective or X makes Z Y-adjective

Ben Zimmer responded by email:

Sometimes such polysemy becomes entirely accepted:

X is doubtful to Z -> X makes Z doubtful
X is dubious to Z -> X makes Z dubious
X is suspicious to Z -> X makes Z suspicious

The OED supports the idea that these adjectives of doubt were originally applied to the cause of the experience, and slightly later to the experiencer. But for each item the two senses have existed side by side in Modern English without any controversy.

There are also cases when the experiencer adjective comes first and is then applied to the cause, e.g.:

X makes Z hysterical -> X is hysterical (i.e., hysterically funny) to Z
X makes Z in/credulous -> X is in/credulous (i.e., in/credible) to Z

The former is more accepted in modern usage than the latter, though both
of them show up on Paul Brians' list of " Common Errors in English":

Brians also supplies another eggcorny "-ive"/"-ed" confusion to go along with "addictive"/"addicted": "calm, cool, and collective".

Some of Ben's cases share the property that there is a morphologically related verb which takes the experiencer as subject: doubt, suspect. The cause/experiencer equivocation seems common (though far from universal) among adjectives of this sort. In addition to the dubious and suspicious cases cited by Ben, we can add:

joyous -- apparently started as "Having a joyful nature or mood" (c1315) and soon became also "Inspiring or productive of joy" (c1450). (The verb "to joy" is no longer used much, but was once commoner.)

fearful -- has meant either "causing fear" or "experiencing fear" since 1350 or so.

desirous -- used for "having desire or longing" since c1300, and for "exciting desire" since 1430. The "exciting desire" sense is listed as obs., and now most people would use desirable instead, but it's still often seen on the web (probably as as a neologism), e.g. in

This is so different, yet so desirous to me.
... we don’t want to let go of those pet sins that are so desirous to us.
It terrified him that the simple idea of harming himself had been so desirous to him.
Menolly longs to see a dragon, but even more desirous to her would be to play her harp.

Ben later wrote to point to the class of adjectives expressing sorrow or grief: (doleful, dolesome, dolorous, mournful, rueful, ruthful, sorrowful, woeful, etc.), which have also generally applied both to causes and to experiencers over the past few hundred years.

There are some adjectives of psychic experience that seem to resist this type of change, for example apprehensive, which modifies experiencers and has never modified causes, as far as I can tell; and timorous, which began in the 15th century modifying both experiencers and causes, but seems to have stopped modifying causes at some point in the 17th century. In contrast, it seems to be entirely regular that an adjective associated with experiencers of a psychic state can also be used to describe symptoms of the experience, i.e. "...he threw quick, apprehensive glances round him...", or "...the capital markets have ... made timorous sounds of willingness".

The back-and-forth between modifiers of experiencers and modifiers of causes seems to represent a type of stable quasi-regularity in derivational morphology. It's not the case here that there was once a regular pattern, now obscured by layers of historical change. Instead, there seems to be a stable but irregular tendency, which is always generating new sporadic usages, some of which catch on, while others drop out of favor.

Posted by Mark Liberman at June 1, 2005 06:41 AM