Ask Language Log: "assuage"

« previous post | next post »

Query from a reader:

Is it correct to use the word assuage to indicate a lessening of something? That is, it is often used in the realm of feelings, i.e. assuage hunger, assuage grief, etc. But would it be acceptable to use to indicate the lessening of something more tangible, such as assuage criminality, assuage the flow of water, assuage drug use.

I probably wouldn't use assuage to describe the lowering of flood waters or the amelioration of traffic jams. But I don't have any special standing to rule on such matters, so as usual, let's look at how others use the word.

The OED's entry for assuage, which is flagged as "not yet … fully updated (first published 1885)", has several senses marked as "arch. or Obs." that don't involve "angry or excited feelings", or beings in such a state.

There's the transitive form glossed "To abate, lessen, diminish (esp. anything swollen)", with examples like

1774   J. Bryant New Syst. II. 284   The Dove..brought the first tidings that the waters of the deep were asswaged.

There's the intransitive inchoative version of the same, glossed "To grow less, diminish, decrease, fall off, die away; to abate, subside", with examples like

1611   Bible (King James) Gen. viii. 1   And the waters asswaged .

COCA has 509 instances of "assuage", 134 of "assuaged", 46 of "assuaging", and 17 of "assuages". Looking at a random sample of 100, we find that all 100 are transitive, and that in 98 of them, what's assuaged is an negatively-evaluated emotion or feeling or concern ("the community's grief", "his guilt", "such mortal concerns", "the twitchy sensation in my cells", "white opposition to slave conversion", "my hunger", "Democratic anxieties", "India's complaints", "feelings of humiliation", the monarch's fears", "his own damaged pride", "the egos of movie stars", "my curiosity", …), or an person or group of people subject to such emotions or feelings or concerns ("his uneasy party", "the academic intellectual community", "the larger man", "international critics of the war", "his jittery passenger", "the chiefs", "the dealers", …).

The two exceptions in the sample are these:

In The Efficiency Trap, Steve Hallett claims that we will exhaust many of our resources by the 2030s, and violence and chaos will erupt as a result. Hallett proposes recycling and growing food locally as possible means of assuaging the damage.

The measure, which awaits Senate approval of a minor amendment next week, can not assuage the impending disaster that will kill virtually all the fish in the Dolores River this summer.

With respect to the specific examples in the query, Google finds

"assuage criminality": one example [link] Please reconsider your gig – don't play for a segregated audience in Israel and make of yourself a balm to assuage criminality.

"assuage the flow of water": no examples (though see biblical examples cited by the OED)

assuage drug use: one example [link] Becker's neoliberal drug policy presumes to assuage drug use and addiction by the instantiation of a highly regulated market as a system of control.

So the verdict of norma loquendi seems to be that applying assuage to things other than people and their feelings is out of fashion and currently marginal.



  1. Jin Defang said,

    June 23, 2017 @ 6:59 am

    why bother using "assuage" when there are so many perfectly good words to express the example given, criminality and, I assume, the proper sentence to be meted out. "Mitigate," as in mitigating circumstances, is the first to come to mind. One of the good things about English is the precision of its nuances.

  2. Singing Organ-Grinder said,

    June 23, 2017 @ 8:04 am

    Ivor Cutler's shopkeeper friend made a similar point years ago:

  3. Ben Orsatti said,

    June 23, 2017 @ 9:49 am

    I might caution against employing "mitigate" as a useful word for describing policies or other actions that have the effect of reducing criminality.

    In the law, "mitigate", as in the the above context of "mitigating circumstances", is somewhat of a term of art, having a very specific meaning relating to factors the court or jury are to consider when determining the sentence of a criminal defendant. A "mitigating factor", for example, might be that a defendant has entered rehab or has a family to support, while an "aggravating circumstance" might be that he shived a fellow inmate while in the holding cell.

    What about the old-standby "reduce"?

  4. R A Chatwin said,

    June 23, 2017 @ 10:26 am

    Spelling differences: swaje as a transitive verb with a tangible object:

    "'I wish you mighty well, Sis Cow. I'd 'low'd bein's how dat you'd hatter sorter camp out all night dat I'd better come en swaje yo' bag,' sezee."

    "Do which, Uncle Remus?" asked the little boy.

    "Go 'long, honey! Swaje 'er bag. W'en cows don't git milk't, der bag swells, en youk'n hear um a moanin' en a beller'n des like dey wuz gittin' hurtid. Dat's wat Brer Rabbit done. He 'sembled his fambly, he did, en he swaje ole Miss Cow's bag.

    [ How Miss Cow Fell Victim to Brer Rabbit: ]

  5. Mark said,

    June 23, 2017 @ 11:05 am

    "I am not assuaged by Julian Assange" seems well-formed to me.

  6. Rodger C said,

    June 23, 2017 @ 11:07 am

    I encounter "mitigate" largely as a mistake for "militate."

  7. Charles Gaulke said,

    June 23, 2017 @ 12:02 pm

    I've only ever thought of "assuage" of as referring to fulfilling a need, with the effect of reducing it, rather than referring directly to the reduction, so to me assuaging someone's anger makes sense as addressing whatever emotional requirement they have to become less angry, whereas assuaging flood waters is gibberish because flood waters don't need or want anything. This was just intuition based on how I'd heard and read the word used, though, and I realize now that I've never actually looked it up before. Funny that, although this does seem to be the most common current usage, it's not the first sense listed in any dictionary I can find now, and not included at all in some of them. The other definitions would never have occurred to me at all.

  8. Ellen K. said,

    June 23, 2017 @ 12:59 pm

    why bother using “assuage” when there are so many perfectly good words…

    Maybe because it's the word that came to mind. I do sometimes, in writing (or thinking of something I might write) find myself using a word and not being entirely sure if the word really works for what I'm wanting to say. Sometimes I get to use the word I had in mind, sometimes I don't. This morning, the word was "demure". I got to keep it, but with a corrected pronunciation.

  9. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 23, 2017 @ 1:18 pm

    Consider the near-synonym "ease," which is used in many of the same "feeling"-driven circumstances (ease your mind, ease your pain, ease your grief, ease your guilt, etc) but also used more broadly (e.g. I confess that I'm not quite sure what exactly is being eased by the Fed's monetary policy of "quantitative easing" but I don't think it's a human emotional state).

    I recently saw, but alas cannot now re-google a headline about a new statute passed somewhere or other that was intended to "ease anti-gay discrimination." I found it a bit confusing, because my initial parse was something like "ameliorate the negative effects of anti-gay discrimination on those discriminated against," but that didn't quite fit the context — and indeed upon closer reading it became clear that the intended parse was something like "make it easier for those inclined to engage in anti-gay discrimination to do so without getting in legal trouble." But in trying in vain to google that recent headline I found an earlier piece that used "ease anti-gay discrimination" with exactly the ameleriorative meaning I'd first assumed, so it's not like my native-speaker reaction was just wrong. That said, I'm not sure if the ambiguity here has to do with the semantics of "ease" (which might carry over to "assuage") or something else about the construction.

  10. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 23, 2017 @ 1:35 pm

    Separately, the use of "mitigate" in "mitigating circumstances" is indeed a lawyers' term of art but that technical sense is significantly narrower than the general use of the verb in e.g. discussions about e.g. how to mitigate the risks associated with a proposed new business venture. Wiktionary offers "alleviate, check, diminish, ease, lighten, mollify, pacify, palliate" as its list of kinda-sorta synonyms for the ordinary semantic scope of "mitigate," and "assuage" feels like it could comfortably go on that list. In particular, "mitigate" would to my ear work perfectly well swapped in for "assuage" in the two COCA hits in the original post where assuage was used with a non-emotional-state object.

  11. languagehat said,

    June 23, 2017 @ 1:50 pm

    In the law, “mitigate”, as in the the above context of “mitigating circumstances”, is somewhat of a term of art, having a very specific meaning relating to factors the court or jury are to consider when determining the sentence of a criminal defendant.

    Lawyers do not get to dictate general usage any more than any other specialists; it can be galling to see the public "misuse" one's cherished terms of art (ask a physicist about quantum leaps), but norma loquendi trumps all. (As J.W. Brewer said.)

  12. Ben Orsatti said,

    June 23, 2017 @ 2:26 pm

    "Lawyers do not get to dictate general usage any more than any other specialists; it can be galling to see the public “misuse” one’s cherished terms of art (ask a physicist about quantum leaps), but norma loquendi trumps all. (As J.W. Brewer said.)" — languagehat

    I've met Norma Loquendi, and she's a fine woman (if a bit talkative); far be it from me to encroach on her bailiwick.

    My caution against conflating common usage "mitigate" with the criminal statutory term "mitigate" doesn't arise out of any particular duty to defend the jargon of my people against encroachment by the proletariat. We are, in fact, the same people that gave you such grotesque Anglo-Norman redundancies as "last will and testament" and "cease and desist".

    Nor am I a linguist, and I hesitate to even throw in my two cents in reply to languagehat, whose blog I admire greatly.

    But if the goal of language usage is clarity and avoidance of vagueness or ambiguity, let me offer a lawyerly compromise: "Mitigate" is fine in most cases when not discussing matters of criminal culpability. Nobody will think of a bifurcated sentencing hearing upon hearing (see what I did there?) that the coming rain is likely to mitigate the present heat wave. But to say that something-or-other will "mitigate criminality" may cause confusion (if momentary) in a hearer that would immediately associate the term with a formal, judicial determination. Or, to borrow languagehat's example, it's fine to speak of a "quantum leap" from analogue to digital technology, but it may be confusing to refer to a "quantum leap" from Newton to Einstein, unless a pun is intended.

  13. languagehat said,

    June 23, 2017 @ 2:29 pm

    Oh, I don't dispute anything you say, and it would unquestionably be better if people didn't wantonly toss around misunderstood terms like “mitigate" and “quantum leap”; my only point is that they're going to do it whether we like it or not, so it's best not to allow one's blood pressure to be too affected by it. I'm still trying to absorb and put into practice that bit of wisdom myself.

  14. Ben Orsatti said,

    June 23, 2017 @ 2:34 pm

    So stipulated. ;-)

    As the famed amateur linguist, George Carlin, once wrote, "Don't sweat the petty things, and don't pet the sweaty things".

  15. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 23, 2017 @ 2:44 pm

    I think it's a different situation than "quantum leap" because the lawyers' technical usage is a narrow application of a pre-existing more general sense rather than the rest of the population having taken a technical coinage and broadened it. The scientific analogy would be more like how words like "work" and "force" have very specific technical meanings as used in physics that students have to learn at some point in their science classes (my middle child, who just finished 7th grade, had this spring her first exposure to "force" as a thing that can be precisely quantified in newtons), but afaik physicists don't grouse when those words are used with their earlier and broader meanings by everyone else in non-physics-class contexts.

    FWIW, Sam'l Johnson's old-timey dictionary treated the noun "mitigation" as a technical legal term but the verb "mitigate" as a general one without any of its four senses specifically noted as lawyer-jargon. Of the five example sentences he gives from famous authors using "mitigate," four are clearly non-legal and the fifth is maybe a little ambiguous because Spenser may have been engaging in some wordplay, given that the adjacent lexeme "counsel" also has both a legal and non-legal sense. (The Faerie Queene quote is "Mishaps are mastered by advice discreet / And counsel mitigates the greatest smart." — Note how "assuages" would substitute well for "mitigates" there if it didn't screw up the meter.)

  16. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 23, 2017 @ 2:50 pm

    Now that I look at the page from Johnson's dictionary again, he used that Spenser quote to illustrate his second sense of "mitigate," viz. "To alleviate; to make mild; to assuage." So the proper response to my independent observation that "assuage" would work well as a synonym in that quote (but for considerations of meter) should probably be "duh."

  17. languagehat said,

    June 23, 2017 @ 3:09 pm

    but afaik physicists don’t grouse when those words are used with their earlier and broader meanings by everyone else in non-physics-class contexts.

    Oh, I'll bet a significant number of them do. People love grousing.

  18. Rubrick said,

    June 23, 2017 @ 4:28 pm

    @Ben Orsatti: If the goal of language usage is clarity and avoidance of vagueness or ambiguity….

    That's a mighty big "if". Plenty of times its goal is to obfuscate and introduce ambiguity instead. And from a bird's eye view, its "goal" is to help us have more grandchildren, same as all our other evolved traits.

  19. djbcjk said,

    June 24, 2017 @ 12:19 am

    @languagehat I was once told that there was a difference between (Aus spelling) "judgment" and "judgement", viz. "judgment" is a decision handed down from the courts, and "judgement" is a quality that all of the rest of us non-professionals have. I don't know what Norma would think of this.

  20. Ray said,

    June 24, 2017 @ 7:11 am

    whenever I hear the word “assuage,” I immediately think of the opening lines of “to kill a mockingbird,” and how “assuage” was a vocabulary word we had to learn:

    “When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow. When it healed, and Jem’s fears of never being able to play football were assuaged, he was seldom self-conscious about his injury.”

    this is scout narrating, and her father was a lawyer!

  21. languagehat said,

    June 24, 2017 @ 7:36 am

    djbcjk: I was once told that there was a difference between (Aus spelling) “judgment” and “judgement”, viz. “judgment” is a decision handed down from the courts, and “judgement” is a quality that all of the rest of us non-professionals have. I don’t know what Norma would think of this.

    That's nonsense outside of Australia, and I strongly suspect it's nonsense in Australia as well. People have a hard time dealing with irregularity, synonymy, alternate spellings, and the like, and they sometimes resort to inventing different senses to make the cognitive dissonance go away. Some people, for instance, claim there's a sense difference between "gray" and "grey."

  22. languagehat said,

    June 24, 2017 @ 7:38 am

    I should add that of course people are free to use language however they like, and if someone prefers to use “judgment” for a decision handed down from the courts and “judgement” for the quality, that's their right. But if they try to force other people to follow them in this peculiarity, they should be slapped down.

  23. Bartleby said,

    June 24, 2017 @ 9:10 am

    "I don’t have any special standing to rule on such matters, so as usual, let’s look at how others use the word." I wish that self-appointed arbiters of "correct" usage and their acolytes would take this sentence to heart!

  24. John Swindle said,

    June 24, 2017 @ 8:59 pm

    Well, I think of Beethoven, and he didn't even write the words, much less the translation: "You brought my aching heart surcease, My tears assuaged your sorrow, assuaged your sor-row…." From a translation of "Zärtliche Liebe" performed as an Art Song by high school sopranos in middle America in the 1960s.

  25. RP said,

    June 25, 2017 @ 5:55 am

    Oxford Dictionaries Online says of "judgement": "In British English the normal spelling in general contexts is judgement. However, the spelling judgment is conventional in legal contexts, and in North American English" ( )

    This doesn't mean that the media or ordinary people in the UK will necessarily use "judgment" in legal contexts. However, the judiciary and legal profession tend to do so.

  26. F said,

    June 25, 2017 @ 7:22 am

    OED says:
    "During the 19th cent. the form judgement gained in frequency in British contexts, and is now the usual spelling in general British use, but judgment has remained the standard spelling in British legal contexts when used to refer to a judicial decision (see sense 8), as well as in U.S. usage."
    So no, what djbcjk said is not "nonsense outside of Australia".

  27. languagehat said,

    June 25, 2017 @ 7:33 am

    Mea culpa; I shouldn't have been so quick to assume.

  28. Coby Lubliner said,

    June 25, 2017 @ 9:13 am

    Languagehat: People love grousing.
    Especially linguists when other people "misuse" passive or grammatical.

  29. languagehat said,

    June 25, 2017 @ 9:24 am

    Very true!

  30. ajay said,

    June 28, 2017 @ 9:18 am

    And there is an actual need for judgment/judgement: it could be important to clarify, especially in a precedent-based legal system, whether something was merely wrong in the judgement of Mr Justice X (he once wrote an article saying it was wrong) or whether it was also wrong in the judgment of Mr JusticeX (he made a decision in court saying so).

  31. languagehat said,

    June 28, 2017 @ 9:47 am

    Well, not need, but utility. Yeah, I can see that, it just never occurred to me that anyone actually made that distinction (other than as a personal quirk). This is why I read LL, to get educated!

  32. Ben Orsatti said,

    June 28, 2017 @ 10:39 am

    I'm all in favo(u)r of preserving the distinction between "judgment" and "judgement" for historical reasons, but I'm not sure it offers any semantic clarity.

    Black's Law Dictionary (sort of our OED) includes both senses (judgement/judgment) under the entry for "judgment". In fact, in law school, we were taught to just save ourselves a lot of trouble and forget about ever writing "judgement" again for the rest of our lives in any context whatsoever.

    "Judgment" in the second sense is defined as "A court's final determination of the rights and obligations of the parties in a case".

    But, to address ajay's point, you wouldn't (at least in the U.S.), ever use the word "judgment" in the context of stare decisis. When discussing precedent, you might say, "the Court's decision in A v. B. […]", or "in the case of A v. B. […]", or "Justice X's opinion in A v. B. […]".

    I think the reason for that might be that a lawyer reading or hearing "judgment" would typically call to mind something like a "money judgment", which is entered after the final decision in a case, and is the thing that is executed in order for the prevailing party to collect any money awarded by the court in the case. This kind of "judgment" is generally boilerplate, to the effect of "A gets $xxx.xx".

    Ask my why we write "AND NOW, to wit […] it is hereby ORDERED, ADJUDGED, and DECREED as follows:" in all of our proposed Orders? No idea. If I had my way, it would say instead: "Order: [numbered paragraphs with stuff you have to do in them]".

  33. Ben Orsatti said,

    June 28, 2017 @ 11:02 am


    Westlaw search within Pennsylvania state and federal cases:

    adv: #judgment AND DA(AFT 1/1/2017) — 4,537 hits

    adv: #judgement AND DA(AFT 1/1/2017) — 92 hits

    Most of the 92 hits for "judgement" were the court's reproduction of misspelt pleadings from litigants, e.g.:

    "In Appellant's court-ordered Pa.R.A.P. 1925(b) concise statement of errors complained of on appeal, he made the following assertions: […]

    2. Thereby abusing it's [sic] discretion, erring as a matter of law, showed bias or ill-will with prejudice towards the Plaintiff, while showing favoritism to the Defendant, and granting summary judgement [sic] to the Defendant in conflict with the Complaint [sic] well pled record facts that also sought “liberal construction” as a pro se litigant besides monetary relief."

    Smolsky v. Gale, No. 2872 EDA 2016, 2017 WL 2304836, at *2 (Pa. Super. Ct. May 26, 2017).

  34. Richard Brown said,

    June 28, 2017 @ 11:34 am

    Can anyone tell me why, 'the killed man' sounds so awkward?

    It appears in the BBC's Teletext quite frequently.

  35. Freya Muhavare said,

    June 29, 2017 @ 9:56 am

    It took me an hour to read this complete post and entire discussion here, just loved it, really interesting "Assuage".

    Freya, UK

RSS feed for comments on this post