A John Cowan comment reminded me I wanted to post about the word obnoxious, which must surely be one of the most difficult words to deal with in reading old documents, since its meaning has changed so confusingly. I discovered this while reading Peter Brown’s Through the Eye of a Needle; in the course of describing how Pope Gelasius helped keep the slaves working for their masters (so the grain would keep flowing from southern Italy to Rome), he writes:

Gelasius was told that many who became priests and deacons had been slaves. Many more had been obnoxii—farmers permanently tied to the estate on which they were registered as taxpayers. Clerical status freed them from these bonds.

Naturally, I wondered about obnoxii, so I looked up obnoxious in the OED (entry updated March 2004), and this is what I found:

Etymology: < classical Latin obnoxiōsus subject, subordinate < obnoxius exposed to harm, liable, answerable, submissive, subject to punishment ( < ob– ob- prefix + noxa hurt, injury (see noxious adj.) + –ius, suffix forming adjectives) + –ōsus -ous suffix.
In senses 4 and 5 probably immediately after noxious adj.

a. Liable, subject, exposed, or open to a thing (esp. something actually or possibly harmful). (The usual sense before the 19th cent.) Now rare.
1572 R. Harrison tr. L. Lavater Of Ghostes i. x. 4 No kinde of men are more obnoxious to these kinde of things.
1578 J. Banister Hist. Man Proeme sig. Biij, They would not be able to hold their bowes, or cast their darts, for losenes of their ioints, through slippery humors so obnoxious to luxation.
1597 R. Hooker Of Lawes Eccl. Politie v. lxxxi. 267 Whom..they wold..make obnoxious to what punishment themselues list.
1621 R. Burton Anat. Melancholy i. i. iii. ii. 49 The finest wits..are before others obnoxious to it [sc. melancholy].
1682 J. Bunyan Holy War 243 The Town of Mansoul..now lyes obnoxious to its foes.
1712 J. Addison Spectator No. 441. ¶2 We are obnoxious to so many Accidents.
1810 R. Southey Curse of Kehama xiv. 154 That corporeal shape alike to pain Obnoxious as to pleasure.
1847 G. Grote Hist. Greece (1862) IV. ii. liv. 565 Obnoxious to general dislike.
1891 Law Times 91 406/2 A similar case, and is obnoxious to similar criticism.
1902 W. James Varieties Relig. Experience xi, The impulse..is..far too immediate and spontaneous an expression of self-despair and anxiety to be obnoxious to any such reproach.

b. Liable to do something. Obs.
1610 J. Donne Pseudo-martyr iii. 118 Our corruption now is more obnoxious and apter to admitte and inuite such poysonous ingredients.
1676 M. Hale Contempl.: 2nd Pt. 49 The time of Youth is most Obnoxious to forget God.
a1734 R. North Lives of Norths (1826) II. 72 They..were obnoxious to be taken up by every peevish sheriff or magistrate.

c. Without to or infinitive. Liable or exposed to harm. Obs. rare.
1612 J. Donne 2nd Anniv. in Progresse Soule 16 Thinke but how poore thou wast, how obnoxious, Whom a small lumpe of flesh could poyson thus.
1813 J. C. Eustace Tour through Italy I. xxv. 587 The inhabitants..would have been excusable if they had transferred the wreck of their property to some other less obnoxious quarter.

2. Subject to the rule, power, or authority of another; answerable, amenable to some authority; dependent, subject; (hence) submissive, obsequious, deferential (to a person). Obs.
1591 H. Savile tr. Tacitus Hist. ii. xix. 80 in Ende of Nero (1604) The Generals being obnoxious [L. obnoxiis ducibus], and not daring to prohibit it.
1591 H. Savile tr. Tacitus Ende of Nero: Fower Bks. Hist. ii. 75 One..of their owne creation, and therefore wholly obnoxious to them.
1656 B. Harris tr. J. N. de Parival Hist. Iron Age i. iv. xiv. 124 Hans-Towns,..partly..free; and partly Provinciall, and obnoxious [Fr. sujettes].
a1658 J. Cleveland Rustick Rampant in Wks. (1687) 437 That Kings are only the Tenants of Heaven, obnoxious to God alone.
a1695 A. Wood Life (1891) I. 397 Most of them..being sneaking and obnoxious, they did run rather with the temper of the Warden than stand against him.
1754 A. Murphy Gray’s Inn Jrnl. No. 72 Whether they are not obnoxious to the Association for preserving the Game.

3. Open to punishment or censure; guilty, blameworthy, reprehensible. Obs.
1604 R. Cawdrey Table Alphabet. Obnoxious, faultie, subiect to danger.
1610 J. Donne Pseudo-martyr xii. 353 The Doctrines of the Keyes..and all the ceremonies, which were the most obnoxious matters.
1719 D. Defoe Farther Adventures Robinson Crusoe 275 Our particular Persons were not obnoxious.
a1774 O. Goldsmith Misc. Wks. (1837) I. 535 A late work has appeared to us highly obnoxious in this respect.
1824 W. S. Landor Imaginary Conversat. I. vi. 73 No wise republic ought to be satisfied, unless she bring to punishment the individual most obnoxious.

4. Hurtful, injurious. Obs.
1638 T. Herbert Some Yeares Trav. (rev. ed.) 323 Crocodile..the most obnoxious of sea monsters.
1646 J. Hall Horæ Vacivæ 81 Unseasonable times of study are very obnoxious, as after meales.

5. Offensive, objectionable, odious, highly disagreeable. Now esp. (of a person): giving offence, acting objectionably; extremely unpleasant, highly dislikable. (Now the usual sense.)
1646 H. Burton Truth, Still Truth 30 Truth may be obnoxious to many, but never noxious to any.
1675 A. Wood Life & Times (1892) II. 318 A very obnoxious person; an ill neighbour; and given much to law sutes with any.
1841 E. FitzGerald Lett. (1889) I. 69 Carlyle..is becoming very obnoxious now that he has become popular.
1866 G. MacDonald Ann. Quiet Neighbourhood (1878) xi. 216 Thumb-marks I find very obnoxious.
1929 J. B. Priestley Good Compan. i. vi. 223 She referred to Unbelief as if it were a very obnoxious person who was in the habit of insulting her every morning and evening.
1944 E. Waugh Let. 29 Feb. (1980) 178 The more I tried to render myself obnoxious to him, the more he liked me.
1982 N. Sedaka Laughter in Rain (1983) ii. ix. 83 If he hated it he would push a button that made an obnoxious buzzer noise.
2000 F. Bleasdale Rubber Gloves or Jimmy Choos ii. 52 Sophie was in love with the most obnoxious guy I’d ever met.

The transitions between the senses are perfectly clear (liable to > subject to > open to punishment or censure; guilty, blameworthy > offensive, objectionable, odious), and yet I look at some of those early quotes and think “If I ran across that in my reading I would be completely at a loss.” When you’re used to the modern sense, it would take a lot of immersion in earlier usage to properly interpret “obnoxious to its foes,” “some other less obnoxious quarter,” “wholly obnoxious to them,” “obnoxious to God alone,” or “obnoxious to the Association for preserving the Game.”


  1. When I was reading Jane Austen, I learned the old meaning of condescending. I would say there too “the transitions between the senses are perfectly clear”, but the contrast between the two meanings is quite piquant.

  2. Rodger C says

    Cf. Anne Bradstreet:

    “I am obnoxious to each carping tongue
    Who says my hand a needle better fits.”

    The Heath Anthology of American Literature doesn’t annotate “obnoxious” here; presumably the editor didn’t recognize the older meaning.

  3. David Eddyshaw says

    I only realised that “obnoxious” had changed radically in meaning when I came across its Latin parent at the very start of Tacitus’ Histories, where T is talking about the difficulties of writing impartial history under the Empire because contemporaries were so partisan in their attitude to the emperors

    ita neutris cura posteritatis inter infensos vel obnoxios

    “so that among neither group was there any thought for posterity, between the hostile and the servile.”

    Whether T himself has much room to talk given his brilliant character assassination of Tiberius in the Annals is another question; though he could scarcely have anticipated that his own work would end up as the major surviving account of that reign, and he is fair minded enough that he himself is the source for most of the material used by modern scholars to rehabilitate Tiberius.

  4. I wonder if it’s one of those words that “grew into” its meaning because it sounded like it: noxious?

    Is there a term for that?

  5. David Eddyshaw says


    “Ingenuity” is a similar case; it ought to mean “ingenuousness”, and the sense “ingeniousness” is in origin basically just a mistake. It would take a quite remarkable degree of language peevery to insist on that nowadays, though.

  6. But I encourage peevers to adopt that cause! Ad maiorem ridiculam!

  7. Well, it’s unlikely, for the same reason that (modern) peeving on singular you is unlikely. Peevers don’t care so much about the content of the rules they push, just that they exist and that people follow them. As Wikipedia says s.v. positive law: “More literally translated, lex posita is posited rather than positive law.” As it is spoken, so mote it be.

  8. @Will: Reading Austen, I always rather hoped that her use of “condescend” was going to feel ironic, but it always seems to be meant sincerely. It’s rather the opposite of the usual problem I have with Austen, which is that cultural development makes things that were supposed to be satirical fall flat; this usage feels like it should be satirical, but it’s actually meant in earnest.

Speak Your Mind