noisome

You’re sitting, let’s say, on a streetcar, bus, subway, in a food court, whatever. And all of a sudden it’s as if Pepé Le Pew has pranced past: something odiously malodorous has been unleashed on the environs. You companion coughs, waves, turns, eyes watering, to you: “Was that you?”

You, shocked, taken aback, defensive, wanting to protest your innocence of the noxious nuisance, can only say (between gasps), “No – I – some…” and then asphyxiate.

Oh, those mercaptans, like olfactory cacophony: annoying noise for your nose. How much better it would be to be merely bored: who would not take ennui over a noisome nastiness?

But why would we call them noisome? Is it by some runaway metaphor, cacophony turning to phony caca, so that just as you may say “your singing stinks” you may conversely say “your stinking sings”? And, by the way, can we use noisome for things other than smells?

To answer the latter question first: Yes, you can use noisome for anything annoying, though it is most commonly used for odours that make your nose say “Oy!” and for other things causing nausea. If you look for synonyms on Visual Thesaurus, you get two sets, one clustered on “offensively malodorous” – words such as fœtid, foul, funky, and stinky – and the other on “causing or able to cause nausea” – words such as sickening, queasy, vile, and loathsome.

But what, then, is the link between noisome, noise, nausea, and annoying? If you think you can sniff it out, you may be after a rotting red herring. Oh, there are links, and there are also disconnections, but they may not all be where you expect.

Let us start with something odious, hateful (in fact, we did). In Latin, est mihi in odio meant “it is hateful to me”; this phrase was apparently the source of the old Venetian inodio, which spread through other Romance languages, wearing down in the process, turning up in Old French as anoi and in modern French as ennui. English took anoi and made of it annoy, which was first a noun – the verb annoy came along just slightly later from the derived verb in French. From this annoy was made an aphetic (trimmed) form noy, possibly through reanalysis as a+noy. And from noy plus the same some as we see on loathsome, toothsome, winsome, and so on we got noisome.

But what about noise? What a nuisance! Where does it come in? Heh. Well, it seems likely that it comes ultimately from nausea – by a semantic shift from “seasickness” to “upset” to “uproar” and “din” – but it may instead come from noxia, which is in turn from nocere “harm” (whence innocent); noxia is the source of noxious and nuisance. But none of this is related – except by coincidence of sound and consequent reanalysis – to noisome.

Well, if it looks like a dog, barks like a dog, smells like a dog… Hmm, well, it’s still not a dog really, but it may dog you even after doggèd digging. Words usually diverge over time; we have plenty of cognates, words that come from the same original word. But sometimes they converge. And sometimes they come to look like something that they specifically are not, and when you have learned them it’s a badge of knowledge that you use them in the “correct” sense, rather than what they look like they mean: words like enormity, meretricious, wizened, noisome… They lurk in the language like invisible mephitic clouds, just waiting for you to walk into them.

Thanks to Cathy McPhalen for suggesting noisome.

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2 responses to “noisome

  1. There is a dialectal word of northern England and Scotland which although uncommon is standard English and often omitted from dictionaries would still be understood by its context.
    The word is “ugsome” which initial glance looks like ‘ugh! …and some’ but it means horrid, loathsome, horrible and comes from the same root as ‘ugly’ – Middle English ‘ugge’, Old Norse ‘uggr’ (fear, dread).
    Its also related to Old Norse ‘ógn’ and ‘agi’ (terror, strife, fear) which gave us in English the words ‘awe’, ‘awesome’, ‘awful’.
    If I were to guess, I’d imagine Welsh ‘ofn’ (fear) was also cognate but that’s off the top of my head. – ‘mae ofn arna i’ – I’m afraid (lit. is fear on me)

  2. ‘Noy’ survived for some time in the Shetland dialect. It appears in that wonderfully eroded scrap of a ballad, ‘King Orfeo’:

    Dan he took oot his pipes ta play,
    Bit sair his hert wi döl an wae.

    An first he played da notes o noy,
    An dan he played da notes o joy.

    An dan he played da göd gabber reel,
    Dat meicht ha made a sick hert hale.

    The whole poem, a version of the Orpheus myth, can be found at
    http://ralphhancock.net/ballads.htm

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