Disgust: How did the word change so completely?

Illustration of vandal breaking a window, by Ben Newman

Originally "disgust" was used to express distaste for rotten food or filth. Today it's deployed against looters, phone hackers and others whose actions many find morally murky. So how did the meaning change so much?

Shakespeare was never disgusted. This was not a word at the Elizabethan playwright's disposal - it only entered the English language towards the end of his life.

He instead wrote of "gorge rising". Same emotion. Different phraseology.

Today the word disgust has replaced more visceral descriptions of revulsion and loathing.

It came into English in 1601 from the Old French "desgouster" meaning distaste, loathe or dislike, in the sense of giving a bad taste to one's mouth, says Gerry Breslin, of Collins Language.

It was also used to mean aversion, but took another 200 years to gain widespread usage.

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"Nowadays people and attitudes can disgust us rather than tastes and smells. The verb has lost its currency, but we do use the adjective disgusting to cover all of these usages."

But what disgusts us most? A new morality test, devised by the BBC's Lab UK, tests reactions to various scenarios. The scientists behind the test want to find out how our sense of right and wrong holds society together.

This sense of a purely moral disgust evolved to protect communities from those who threaten our ability to work together, says behavioural scientist Val Curtis, of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

"The word that we use for it has changed, but the emotion has not. Disgust is a system in the brain that helps us avoid disease and contamination, and also human parasites.

"It's an ancient reaction. We already had an emotion that was good for shunning people with poor hygiene, so we started to use the same emotion to push transgressors out of the group."

Graph showing frequency of use of word disgusted

It is difficult to chart the shifting meanings of disgust.

Start Quote

Politicians use it, as it's a powerful means to contaminate people with their words”

End Quote Val Curtis

But Google Ngram measures the frequency with which it appears in books and periodicals, and shows a sharp spike in 1800, when the Industrial Revolution picked up steam and urban drift became an urban rush.

"Letters to the editor, and the journalists themselves, have used disgust, disgusting or disgusted to describe their reactions to things they don't like right back into the 18th Century," says Bob Clarke, the author of From Grub Street to Fleet Street: an Illustrated History of English Newspapers to 1899.

Examples plucked from his collection of letters to the editor include:

  • "SIR - I was much disgusted, with many more peaceable people, at the afternoon demonstration held in our town, on Wednesday last, by the colliers of the district" - Wrexham Advertiser, 5 February 1870
  • "Lord Bute has triumphed over all to the disgust of an incensed people" - letter to the editor, Middlesex Journal, 19 November 1774

"The use of the word disgusted was so common that it was sometimes used in error," says Mr Clarke.

Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells

The Times digital archive covers every issue of the paper between 1785 and 1985.

The phrase "disgusted of Tunbridge Wells" was only used twice during that 200-year period, the first in 1980 and then in 1983 - in both cases deployed as an already well-worn phrase.

As for "Disgusted, Tunbridge Wells", the earliest reference in our archive is in a leading article entitled "What Matters in a Democracy" from 3 January 1964 which contains the line - "[T]he present Conservative government is more socialistic than [Ramsay] MacDonald's cared to be little more than 30 years ago - an observation frequently echoed by that other political commentator, 'Disgusted, Tunbridge Wells'."

From which we can deduce that by 1964 the term was already a well-worn cliche - though not one that had previously appeared in The Times.

This necessitated corrections and clarifications such as this from the Blackburn Standard in March 1850: "In our summary of Friday, Lord J Russell is made to say that 'the country was still disgusted with recent legislation'. It was a misprint; the word should have been 'disquieted'."

The origins of the pen name Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells are not clear. Wikipedia cites historian and former newspaper editor Frank Chapman attributing it to staff at the Tunbridge Wells Advertiser. The story goes that letters were made up to fill space and one member of staff signed off theirs with "Disgusted, Tunbridge Wells".

Another story goes that it came from a letter-writer to The Times or Daily Telegraph.

It is thought that the phrase does date from the mid-20th Century. But similarly named correspondents have been composing slightly humorous letters of complaint since the mid-19th Century.

The Oxford English Dictionary carries this definition: "Disgusted n. Brit. (usually humorous or depreciative). Originally as a self-designation: a member of the public who writes anonymously to a newspaper expressing outrage about a particular issue. Hence more widely: a person who is vocal and indignant in his or her opposition to something."

The first recorded usage dates from 26 September 1868, when "Yours, &c., Disgusted" wrote to the Musical Standard about the position of an organ in a Kennington chapel.

"The humour lies in applying a word which conveys strong emotion to a relatively minor or trivial matter," says Denny Hilton, the OED's senior assistant editor. "This sort of weakening of meaning is a natural feature of language development - we abominate things, or adore them, or describe them as disasters, or nightmares, in much the same way."

Words commonly paired with disgust

Young woman pulling a disgusted face
  • behaviour, habit, attitude
  • crime
  • story
  • revelation
  • insult
  • greed
  • Also goo, concoction, mess

Source: Collins Corpus of 4.5 bn words

By 1978, this nom de plume for an outraged letter-writer was so well-worn that Radio 4 called its new listener feedback programme Disgusted, Tunbridge Wells. (It has since been renamed the rather more prosaic Feedback.)

But disgust and its variations are also popular with politicians and commentators, and not for comic effect, says Dr Curtis.

"It's a word that sticks to people and is used to label them. So politicians often use it, as it's a powerful means to contaminate people with their words. Immigrants and homosexuals have both been on the receiving end of this over time."

Then there is the way it rolls off the tongue when one wants to sound truly outraged, says Breslin.

"The s sounds and the harsh g and final t help to make it a very sonorous and impactful word."


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  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    Actually the word's spike in popularity started in 1750. Your graph is faulty, due to Google Books' inability to parse a long S, ſ, as "s". The spike at 1800 you show is actually when ſ drops out of use. Search for both "disgust" and "difguft" and you'll see the real result: http://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=difguft%2Cdisgust&year_start=1600&year_end=2000&corpus=0&smoothing=3

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    I blame Peppa Pig...

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    I had no idea about the etymology of "disgusted".

    For some reason, it particularly irks me if someone pronounces the word with a "z" sound for the first s.

    Don't know why but it sounds like a kind of rhetorical stress to express the dizzzzgust of the speaker.

    Stop it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    Well it's a favourite word on the BBC message boards.

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    The word 'awesome' seems to have taken over from the perfectly good 'amazing' but then youth seems to like anything from across the pond even if there is a perfectly usable word or item in the UK. If I see the word 'awesome' I immediately downrate the user's intelligence a few points.

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    The headline writer says "How did the word change so completely?" But to my mind it's hardly a radical change - simply going from food to a wider array of things that we find distasteful.

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    I fail to see the point in becoming exercised by the changes in language.

    Language is evolutionary and changes constantly, all we are seeing is a more rapid change, facilitated by mass communication and modern technology.

    If language did not evolve we would still be speaking in grunts, Latin, middle English or who knows what?

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    Disgraceful; revolting; atrocious; offensive; loathsome; repulsive; unspeakable; abominable; shocking; appalling; outrageous; monstrous; ghastly; dreadful; horrifying....etc. These are adjectives that can convey, in evocative ways, all nuances of distaste.

    It seems to me that over-use of the word "disgusting" is indicative of both laziness and a narrowness of vocabulary.

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    The origin surprises me. I would have expected "dis" as in against and "gastro" as in stomach, i.e, something that makes one vomit. But then, maybe that is where the French got it from.
    The extension in meaning seems quite minor. As for the verb "disgust" being lost, that's not true. "It disgusts me" is perfectly ordinary usage.
    Now "gay" really has been hijacked.

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    Apart from introduced words to our language, of equal interest is the popular evolution of words. In my lifetime, "I went" meant to go somewhere, "Like" meant similar, "Gay" meant happy, "Cool" was the opposite of warm, etc etc. I use these words in their original context and never substitute them for, in my opinion, slovenly popularity.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    I always presumed that the food in Cheltenham was of a particularly vile nature, due to the many letters to the times and others penned by "Disgusted of Cheltenham Spa".

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    Remember George Orwell's 1984? We are currently approving to the New Speak when we start to eliminate, replace or combined words, and changing their meanings.

  • Comment number 18.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    It only goes to show that you can learn something new everyday. My pet hate word is Gay! when I was born it meant someone who was happy and carefree, Now I would not dare to use that term for for fear of getting a black eye from a non homosexual.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    there are many words in world why start controvercy its interesting how much time is wasted on minor things yet there are many findings that require our attention wake up please

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    Language misuse of this type is media led and spread due to the demand for the perfectly turned soundbite. Can't remember the last time I saw a 'reality' TV show that didn't over use the words 'journey' and 'devastated' - the latter has been devalued to the point at which it is virtually meaningless.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    I find it a helpful rule of thumb to remember that the word "disgust" is, by its very nature, subjective.

    So when I hear anyone (most politicians, and all vox-pops) employ it as if it were objective, then I immediately know they are using it as a meaningless piece of verbal punctuation.

    It makes it a lot easier to understand them!

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    Nothing new.
    The word `diversity' used to mean just that, now it means a melting pot, which is the exact opposite, the loss of real diversity.
    Same with the word democracy, freedom of speech etc.
    Hate speech is another phrase, which actually means something those in power hate you to say.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    I never use the term when describing looters and phone hackers.
    However, when discussing the activities of politicians and bankers.......

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    Not surprised. Words are changing their meaning all the time. For example, the word "doctor" actually means "teacher". A "dog" was specifically a hunting animal whereas a "hound" was any kind of canine, even a pet - the meanings have swapped places! I learned that when I was a little "girl" - now I am a grown man - that's because the noun "girl" applied to children of both sexes.


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