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.

"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."

It is difficult to chart the shifting meanings of disgust.

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.

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."

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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