Which Word Wednesday: Anxious vs. Eager

By September 1, 2010 language No Comments

Have you been anxiously awaiting this week’s Which Word Wednesday?

Well, I truly hope not. I would feel awful if WWW was generating that sort of emotional state within my beloved readers.

It would be fabulous, however, if you were eager with anticipation.

What’s the difference? I’m so glad you asked! You see, contrary to popular usage, anxious and eager are not synonyms. But don’t just take my word for it. Let’s look at the definitions from the Oxford American Dictionary:

Anxious :: adjective
1 experiencing worry, unease, or nervousness, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome • [ attrib. ] (of a period of time or situation) causing or characterized by worry or nervousness
2 [usu with infinitive ] wanting something very much, typically with a feeling of unease

Eager :: adjective
(of a person) wanting to do or have something very much • (of a person’s expression or tone of voice) characterized by keen expectancy or interest

Both anxious and eager are adjectives, describing a person’s state of being.

But anxious should be employed when the situation stimulates nervousness or unease; eager should be employed when the situation stimulates delight. (Now, some situations produce a bit of both, a mix of delight and unease. In that case, you’ll just have to explain your array of feelings.) For typical experiences, however, one of these two states will dominate, and you should try to use the right descriptor. Here is a trick for remembering when to use anxious vs. eager:

Use anxious when the situation causes anxiety.

Use eager when the situation causes enthusiasm.

I find it interesting that anxious has blobbed off onto eager’s territory, but eager would never saunter over to dominate anxious. Eager must be the more polite of the two . . . or perhaps anxious is codependent?

Anyhow, let me illustrate this curiosity: If you were worried for the new school year to begin, you would never use eager to describe your emotional state, because if you did, everyone would think you were excited about school starting, which you aren’t. But if you were looking forward to school starting, you could use eager (which is clear)—or if you used anxious and deliver it with pep and everyone would know of your enthusiasm for school. Strange, eh?

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Poor old eager—it’s gotten trampled on with no one to stand up for it.

Until now! Rise up my fellow word nerds! Let’s corral anxious to its proper place and give eager some room to breathe.

My verdict in this WWW? Anxious and eager are opposites of sorts—one is a negative emotional state, the other is a positive. No synonyms here.

What’s your verdict? Take the poll and share your thoughts in the comments. But only if you are eager to share—no need to be anxious about it.

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