Daily Archives: February 1, 2012


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.


I glanced over at the copy of Vanity Fair my wife was reading and noticed a pull quote: “Jon has lots of fortitude.… This is good when life requires being resilient, but it’s bad when it requires change.”

Fortitude! Not a word you see all the time, and the particular sentence struck me as a bit odd. How often do we say that this or that person has fortitude? I almost rather think is strong or, perhaps, is fortitudinous would be more expected. But beyond that, to have lots of fortitude – right next to each other you have a very colloquial term, lots of, and a rather formal, erudite, poetic, or at the very least officious term, fortitude.

The article, by the way, is on Jon Corzine, former head of Goldman Sachs, former governor of New Jersey, most recently in charge of the brokerage MF Global in its $40 billion meltdown. The actual text in the article is just slightly different from the pull quote: “‘He has lots of fortitude,’ says someone who has worked with him. ‘The winds don’t buffet him. This is good when life requires being resilient, but it’s bad when it requires change.’”

And that’s a nice little gloss of fortitude: “The winds don’t buffet him.” He’s not the sort of guy who dives for cover at the first sign of opposition. I am put in mind of Major Chaterjack from Spike Milligan’s World War II memoir Adolf Hitler: My Part in His Downfall (page 99):

He was this kind of man. Autumn morning – the early sun had melted the night frost, leaving glistening damp trees. Battery parading – small wafts of steam are appearing from men’s mouths and noses – the muster roll is called – B.S.M. is about to report to Major Chaterjack: ‘Battery all correct and present, sir!’ The roar of a plane mixed with cannon shells all over the place – M.E. 109 roof top, red propellor boss – panic – Battery as one man into ditch – not Major Chaterjack, M.C., D.S.O. – stands alone in the road – unmoved – produces a silver case, lights up a cigarette. He is smoking luxuriously as well all sheepishly rise from what now feels like the gutter. He addresses us: ‘Very good – you realise you did the right thing and I the wrong.’ What can you say to a bloke like that?

I can tell you what you say of the other sort of bloke, the kind who dives for cover when his neighbour sneezes: the stock term is lack of intestinal fortitude, and in fact intestinal is the word that goes most often with fortitude now. (Post-traumatic stress disorder is a whole other matter, of course, and has often been mistaken for lack of intestinal fortitude – as happened later in the war to Milligan, too.) Intestinal fortitude doesn’t mean you can survive a bowl of five-alarm chili – well, it may mean that too, but it’s not a literal reference to your bowels. It’s really a fancy, often jocularly fancy (perhaps jocular in that army way), way of saying “guts” – in the figurative sense.

Fortitude, anyway, by itself, is stiff upper lip, “keep calm and carry on,” but it’s more than that. It’s courage, moral strength, but specifically the strength to endure pain or adversity, as opposed to the strength and courage to take action. It’s actually one of the four cardinal virtues (did you know there were four cardinal virtues?): prudence, justice, temperance, fortitude.

Is it me, or do three of those four sound quite reserved, cautious, and conservative? What about kindness or helpfulness or cheerfulness? Are the “cardinal virtues” the virtues you most seek in a person? Does it make a difference whether you’re evaluating the person as a role model or as a friend? Edmund Burke, in On the Sublime and the Beautiful, certainly thought so:

Those virtues which cause admiration, and are of the sublimer kind, produce terror rather than love; such as fortitude, justice, wisdom, and the like. Never was any man amiable by force of these qualities. Those which engage our hearts, which impress us with a sense of loveliness, are the softer virtues; easiness of temper, compassion, kindness, and liberality; though certainly those latter are of less immediate and momentous concern to society, and of less dignity. But it is for that reason that they are so amiable.

Heroes are great for doing great things, but are they the sort you want to hang out and party with? Grim, stoic determination hardly seems like great dinner company. But on the other hand, a sort like Major Chaterjack shows you can combine fortitude with amiability and wit.

Fortitude is, of course, from Latin for “strength”; the root fortis “strong” shows up in quite a lot of places. Fortitude could have been an expensive synonym for “strength” in the literal sense, and in fact it formerly was used that way; however, it’s useful to have separate terms for inner strength of endurance and for physical strength, and that is how it has developed – indeed, it has developed to the point that even in the figurative senses it has split a bit from strength, so that you can even find references to having or needing the strength and fortitude.

The word’s bare phonetics don’t carry a whole bunch of intrinsically “strong” sounds; /f/ is the softest fricative, and /t/ the lightest voiceless stop, and the whole of it taps lightly along in three steps. Words like guts and strength may be said to have a bit more basic oomph to them. But on the other hand, fort is well associated with strength and strongholds, so the word comes on stronger with that.

As for other echoes, fortitude carries ones of such words as attitude and other tude words as well as fainter ones of more distant arrangements such as ratatouille, but the one that comes first for me is the one that says fortitude is what you need when others are at sixes and sevens and problems are multiplying – after all, six multiplied by seven is forty-two.