• A sense of doubt, anxiety, or other feeling that causes hesitation and disquiet

  • (Antiquated) A sensation of queasiness or weakness


Crud. You've been flying through your vocabulary test, but suddenly you've hit a question that simply mystifies you. Forget about making an educated guess; this problem might as well be written in Sanskrit. "C" sounds like it'd be the answer to some question, but your suspicions tells you it's not this one. Hmm, looks like the guy next to you already finished this page - his paper is tantalizingly close, and if you squint hard enough you might be able to see what he picked. Luckily, something holds you back, a sudden moment of misgiving and self-reproach. Feeling slightly queasy that you even considered such a heinous thing, you turn away. "Oh well," you think, "when in doubt, Charlie out!" That may be a dubious rule, but at least you have fewer qualms about it than you would about cheating.

When you're afraid you might be about to do something wrong, you might say you have qualms about your choice. A qualm is a small feeling of self-doubt or fear that comes on when you're about to do something questionable. This might mean that you're nervous about messing up or being incorrect - like, say, how you might feel a qualm about whether to write that something “affects” or “effects” change, or whether or not to pronounce the "L" in qualm - or that you're unsure of the morality of your thinking. Qualms are the scruples that stop you from crossing ethical lines, the worries that make you hesitate before you commit to something that doesn't seem quite right. They often take the form of a little voice inside your head, although you might sometimes have a hard time putting them into words. Depending on the situation, a qualm can be an effect of your insecurity, your memory, or your conscience. When beset by these little doubts, it's common to say that you have qualms about something.

You might also hear people say that they have qualms with something, and this may give you qualms about whether to use “qualms about” or “qualms with.” While having a qualm about something is generally more common than a qualm with something, both phrases mean “a sense of hesitation or anxiety related to an object or action.” The two phrases can be used interchangeably, so don’t let this particular qualm get to you!

Do anxiety and moral ambiguity leave you with physical discomfort as well as psychological? If the idea of screwing up or wronging someone makes you feel a little sick to your stomach, you might already understand why qualm was originally used in English to refer to a bout of nausea or illness. If you had a qualm in this sense, it would probably have been a good idea to sit down and have a cracker before you fainted or vomited. This usage is extremely rare these days, though; outside of older writing, you're much more likely to hear qualm used metaphorically.

Example: I felt more than a few qualms about the freshness of the greenish-tinged oysters sitting untouched on the buffet table.

Example: My wife, who scarfed three, evidently had no such qualm.

Example: My wife, who has an iron stomach, probably could have eaten the whole plate without the slightest qualm.

Example: Her only qualm was whether the oysters had been ethically harvested.


We'll be honest: we have a few qualms about this etymology, since it's extremely uncertain; still, we're prepared to make the most sense of it we can. Actually, to be honest, there's not much to make sense of: there are almost no words we can peg down as direct ancestors. One of the few seems to be the Old English word cwealm, meaning "slaughter, carnage, or death" or "utter calamity," all of which would probably stir up a few qualms in anyone. This kind of, um, extreme word may be related to the Proto-Indo-European root gwele-, which, meaning "to pitch or extend" (as well as, metaphorically, "to spear or stab," as to cause pain), might also be an ancestor of the modern English quell. We're not sure how or when this idea was generalized to "an uncomfortable queasiness," but we can peg the first appearances of that meaning of qualm to the 1520s. The senses of "a doubt or feeling of unease" and "a moral compunction" likely arose a few decades later.

Derivative Words

Qualmish: Yes, as funny as it sounds, qualmish is a valid (albeit extremely rare) English adjective. Qualmish can characterize people (or their stomachs) as queasy or unsettled. It can also describe people, thoughts, and expressions as uncertain or characterized by misgivings.

Example: The rollercoaster's immense loops made me a little qualmish about getting on line.

Example: After riding the rollercoaster, I headed straight for the nearest garbage can, feeling more than a little qualmish.

In Literature

From Yann Martel's Beatrice and Virgil:

English's drive to exploit the new and the alien, its zeal in robbing words from other languages, its incapacity to feel qualms over the matter, its museum-size overabundance of vocabulary, it shoulder-shrug approach to spelling, its don't-worry-be-happy concern for grammar--the result was a language whose colour and wealth Henry loved.

In this passage, Martel explains why the character Henry (also an author) chooses to write in English over German. Henry is partial to English because he loves how sprawling and free it is; he even goes so far as to personify it as an entity that feels no misgivings, or qualms, about stealing words from other languages.


If that L in the middle of qualm is throwing you off a little, don't worry - you're definitely not alone. Most people treat the L as silent, much like in the similarly spelled calm. However, some speakers do pronounce the L…again, just like with calm. Both ways are fine, but when in doubt, just pronounce the vowel like you would the A in swan.


  • Qualm will make you question and queasy

  • Qualm: A doubt which disturbs your calm


Doubt, Ethics, Morals, Question, Stomach

Bring out the linguist in you! What is your own interpretation of qualm. Did you use qualm in a game? Provide an example sentence or a literary quote.