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The Story Behind “Fatigue” – The History & Origin of the Word


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We’ve all heard the word “fatigue” – it’s that word we use when we talk about how tired we are, or how we’re constantly struggling to keep our eyes open, or maybe you use it to describe the way your brain feels like mush because you’re so exhausted, but you just keep telling yourself you “just need a nap”.

So you know the word fatigue. But have you ever wondered where it came from? Here’s all about the history and origin of fatigue and how it progressed over time.


Understanding the Definition of “Fatigue”

Before we can discuss the history of the word fatigue, it’s important to understand what it actually means. Oxford Languages, the world’s leading dictionary publisher, defines fatigue as, “extreme tiredness resulting from mental or physical exertion or illness.” Keep in mind that being fatigued is different than being tired (and you can read all about the differences between fatigue and tiredness in our blog post here). There are endless possible causes for fatigue, and symptoms vary from person to person, but this blog post we wrote addresses the causes and symptoms of fatigue.

Now that you’ve got the definition of “fatigue”, let’s take a look at the history and origin of the word.


The Original Meaning & Where It Came From

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, founded in 1828 and America’s leading provider of language information for more than 180 years, the first known use of “fatigue” was as a noun in 1669, then as a verb in 1693, and finally as an adjective in 1774. Merriam-Webster goes more in depth in an article they posted that says, “[fatigue] only dates back to mid-17th century in English – it’s not even used a single time by Shakespeare”. This is really interesting because the word fatigue is so widely known and used today, yet centuries ago the word didn’t exist.

Merriam-Webster‘s article also says that before fatigue, the word “tiredness” was used – but only since the mid-16th century. The article continues, “the noun most commonly used for “the state of being tired” prior to 1600… was weariness”, but today the word weary is “often used to convey emotional exhaustion”.

We’ve talked about the history of fatigue – now what about the origin? Well Lexico.com, a collaboration between Dictionary.com and Oxford University Press (OUP), lists the origin in their definition of fatigue: “Mid 17th century… from French fatigue (noun), fatiguer (verb), from Latin fatigare ‘tire out’.” Vocabulary.com, an online vocabulary acquisition platform founded in 2008 that is designed to help people learn new words, play games that improve vocabulary, and explore language, also includes the origin of “fatigue” in their definition, ” the adjective fatigued comes from fatigue, originally a French word meaning ‘weariness,’ from the verb fatiguer, ‘to tire,’ which has a Latin root, fatigare, ‘to make weary.’ “


But Wait – There’s More to the Story

Merriam-Webster Dictionary‘s definition of fatigue says that the first known use of the word was as a noun in 1669 (in the sense of military labor). But in their article, they give examples of the how early uses of fatigue were often in military contexts:

So fatigue was used in military contexts as early as 1644, which (according to Merriam-Webster Dictionary‘s article) led to fatigue meaning, “manual or menial work performed by military personnel”. Now let’s move on and look at how the word fatigue became popular.


Integration of the Word “Fatigue” into Everyday Vocabularies

Google Books Ngram Viewer, a Google tool that outputs a graph representing the use of a particular word or phrase in books through time, generated a graph of the use of the word fatigue from the years 1600 – 2019:

The graph from Google Books Ngram Viewer shows fatigue as spiking in popularity between the years of about 1739 – 1824. The graph also shows the use of fatigue falls off a bit after 1825, but interestingly enough, it begins to pick up popularity again right around 1906. This can be connected back to World Wars I and II. Britannica.com, the website for Encyclopaedia Britannica (the oldest English-language general encyclopaedia, first published in 1768), houses a video about the treatment of “combat fatigue” in British soldiers in World War I.

Looking back to the graph from Google Books Ngram Viewer, usage of the word fatigue drops again around 1920, but gains popularity around 1937 as World War II begins. According to MedicineNet (an online healthcare media publishing company owned and operated by WebMD), by World War II, battle fatigue was coined as the term “for what is known today as post-traumatic stress.”


Conclusion

Fatigue definitions are as varied as the sources in which they are used. Although it would seem that a word with such a simple meaning would be fairly clear-cut, the opposite is quite true: its definition depends on who uses it. Today, many different industries use this term in different ways, but no matter how “fatigue” is used, it always traces back to the idea of physical, mental, or emotional exhaustion that cannot be overcome.


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References


combat fatigue. (n.d.). Encyclopædia Britannica; Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved January 2, 2022, from https://www.britannica.com/science/combat-fatigue


Editors of Merriam-Webster. (2018, February 13). The Tired History of “Fatigue” | Merriam-Webster. Dictionary by Merriam-Webster: America’s Most-Trusted Online Dictionary; Merriam-Webster. https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/the-tired-history-of-fatigue


FATIGUE | Meaning & Definition for UK English | Lexico.com. (n.d.). Lexico Dictionaries | English; Lexico Dictionaries. Retrieved January 2, 2022, from https://www.lexico.com/definition/fatigue


Fatigue Definition & Meaning – Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Dictionary by Merriam-Webster: America’s Most-Trusted Online Dictionary. Retrieved January 2, 2022, from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/fatigue


Fatigued – Definition, Meaning & Synonyms | Vocabulary.com. (n.d.). Vocabulary.Com. Retrieved January 2, 2022, from https://www.vocabulary.com/dictionary/fatigued


Medical Definition of Battle fatigue. (3 C.E.). MedicineNet; MedicineNet. https://www.medicinenet.com/battle_fatigue/definition.htm

 

Google Ngram Viewer. (n.d.). Google Books. Retrieved January 2, 2022, from https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=fatigue&year_start=1600&year_end=2019&corpus=26&smoothing=3

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