August 19, 2013

Case File #013.08.19: NOISOME

Appearances can often be deceiving, and when it comes to English vocabulary, the adjective noisome is a case in point: in spite of the word's spelling and the way it sounds when properly pronounced, it has no etymological or semantic connection to the word noise whatsoever. Noisome is actually a descendant of the Middle English noun anoi, which meant “nuisance” or “annoyance” and was itself derived from the Old French verb anoier, meaning “to disturb or irritate.” (As you may have guessed, anoier is also the source of the English verb annoy.) During the thirteenth century, English speakers would sometimes shorten anoi to noi (also spelled noy or noye) and use it to mean “misfortune, danger, or harm,” and around the mid-fourteenth century, the suffix -some, meaning “characterized by” or “tending to cause,” was added to noi and—voilĂ —the adjective noisome was formed. Thus, noisome means “dangerous or harmful”—a definition that obviously has nothing to do with the word noise, though noise can sometimes be dangerous and harmful—and this was its sole meaning until circa 1570, at which point it took on the additional and still current senses of “obnoxious or offensive” and “malodorous or fetid.”

©2013 Michael R. Gates

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