Printable Version
Pronunciation: kwahlm Hear it!

Part of Speech: Noun

Meaning: 1. A misgiving, a doubt or reservation. 2. A scruple of conscience about whether one's actions are right. 3. A sudden feeling of nausea or faintness.

Notes: I have no qualms in reporting that the meaning of this word seems unstable. Over the course of its history it reflected a softening of its definition from "death" to "a mild pang of conscience". It brings with it two adjectives: qualmish and qualmy, each with an abstract noun: qualmishness and qualminess. We also have the negative qualmless at our disposal. It may also be used as a verb meaning "to have qualms".

In Play: The meaning of today's Good Word has undergone major softening. We now use this word in its mildest sense in its history: "I would have no qualms posting a chore list at any large gathering of my family." Of course, qualms still come in a range of strengths: "Candi Storr had qualms about taking the baby's candy, but she managed to overcome them."

Word History: Today's Good Word can be traced back to Old English cuelm "death", a cognate of Old Saxon qualm "death". It is akin to quell, which also originally meant "to kill, "to torture", again, from Old Saxon quellian. We know that it comes from Proto-Germanic word, but we cannot take the etymology back any further than this. From "(violent) death" the word's meaning slid to "torture", then simply to "torment", as we seen in Icelandic kvelja "torture, torment". In Danish kvalme "nausea" and Swedish kvlja "to nauseate", we see the word becoming even milder. The senses of today's English word and Modern German quälen "to worry" are at the end of the semantic slide from the original sense. (I have no qualms at all in thanking William Hupy for suggesting today's semantically interesting Good Word.)

Dr. Goodword,

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