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Enervate

For several centuries, the primary definition of enervate was to weaken or to sap of energy or will. In current usage, however, it is often used as a synonym of energize—almost the opposite of its older sense. Many people understandably consider the older sense the only correct one, and careful writers and editors continue to keep it alive, but this might not be enough to stop the spread of the word in its newer sense.

Enervate comes from the Latin enervare, meaning to cut the sinews of or to weaken.1 The word entered English around the late 16th century and was mostly figurative (i.e., not referring to the actual cutting of sinews) right from the start.2

It’s difficult to trace exactly how or when the newer sense entered the language. In our own searches of historical texts we find no examples of envervate used in the newer way from before the late 1990s, but this doesn’t mean there are no earlier examples out there. In any case, it was not until this century that the second sense became so common that examples are easy to find without much digging. In fact, the newer sense is more common than the older one in the types of web-searchable writing that are typically not well-edited.

It is worth noting that enervate‘s near homophone innervate, which is used mainly in biology, is roughly synonymous with energize if we stretch it into figurative use. Perhaps this has had some influence on the development of enervate‘s newer use.

Examples

Since the 17th century, enervate has been primarily a synonym of weaken, as in these examples:


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And therefore lest his Impostures and Deceits should be discovered by the light of the Word, he lets himselfe by all meanes to overthrow the Scriptures, to enervate and weaken their Authority. [The Plain mans Senses Exercised to Discern both Good and Evil, William Lyford (1655)]

The rational faculties are so enervated, as to be disordered on every trifling occasion; the patient comes to be troublesome to others, as well as to himself. [Attempts to Revive Antient Medial Doctrines, Alexander Sutherland (1763)]

To accomplish this design, he studies to protect his industrious subjects, and to moderate the violence without enervating the valour of his soldiers. [The history of the decline and fall of the Roman empire, Edward Gibbon (1837)]

Endless morasses of reeds enfolded us, in whose miry depths the foot sinks even in the dry weather, in which the sultry heat enervates us. [In wildest Africa, Carl Georg Schillings (1907)]

That goal seemed to invigorate the United States and enervate El Salvador, which had dominated play for more than an hour. [New York Times (2009)]

But today, enervate is commonly used as a synonym of energize—for example:

Drohan, her initial shift from near-catatonia to mega-smiling politesse reaching hilariously enervated levels — “Great! Great-great!” — is a comic find. [Los Angeles Times]

It’s an enervating and invigorating aspect of contemporary society that the apparatus of luxury, once denied by status and birth, is more widely available. [TVNZ]

Such examples are difficult to find in edited writing, but they are abundant in web searches covering internet forums and blog comments (which we don’t like to use for examples).

Sources

1. Chambers Dictionary of Etymology
2. Enervate in the OED

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Comments

  1. young reader says:

    I often mistaken enervate with “to energize” because of the Harry Potter spell! Rowling’s “Enervate” spell counters the effect of “Stupefy,” which is a stunning spell that renders the target unconscious. It’s since been renamed, but I’m still having trouble trying to forget this association that I made when I was younger.

  2. Eloise deLun says:

    I know that this misconception date back to the late 1970s at least. I was in nursing school in 1980 and the professor (She wasn’t really a professor, just a nurse with a BSN.) was using the word enervate in the manner of ‘to energize, strengthen and improve’. I spoke up and said that enervate meant to weaken or to cause one to lose strength. She became quite upset,telling me that in her classroom I wasn’t entitled to an opinion. I said it wasn’t opinion, it was fact. The next day I brought in copies of the dictionary definition of enervate for the other 29 students and, of course, her.

    She was not amused.

    We were given the biographies of all of our teachers so I pulled it out to confirm when she had gone to school and found 1965 listed as her graduation date so that gives us a timeline.Given the fact she was teaching this wrong definition at that point in time means the usage of enervate had to have changed at least 15 years earlier for her to be teaching it in the classroom. That assumes she was told ‘to weaken etc.” was the meaning of enervate when she was in school getting her BSN.

    My best guess is the change came sometime in the 1950s when textbooks were stylized & everybody was learning from the same body of work. Quite a few mistakes were made in those textbooks and it’s entirely possible that those in use in the Midwest (where she and I come from) were among the first to get it wrong. Just a guess, of course.

  3. This is a great example of when a change in usage can be potentially destructive to a language. I’m no purist, and of course languages evolve, but when a word takes on a meaning that is near opposite of its original, and that change is only seen in colloquial usage, that smacks to me of ignorance rather than an acceptable divergence.

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