Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Fulsome is as fulsome does

Commenting on this morning’s post, “Be careful out there,” Marisa Birns wrote:

I remember when fulsome was not the best word to use with “praise”.

So do I.

I remember attending a conference some years back at which an Episcopal priest repeatedly used fulsome to mean lavish. Ever generous with advice, I took him aside privately and apprised him of the traditional meaning, “disgustingly excessive.” Apparently in the laying-on of hands in the Apostolic Succession the reverend clergy are granted some tincture of the divine omniscience, because he did not utter another word to me for the rest of the conference.

(Reminder to editors: Don’t expect gratitude.)

Of course, if you were to dig around in the history of the language, you would discover that in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the word meant abundant or full, later plump or well-fed. It was in the seventeenth century that the word took on the sense of excessiveness and offensiveness, and now turning full circle to its earliest sense.

Bryan Garner describes its current status as a “skunked” term, one best to avoid because someone will think you in error no matter which meaning you intend.   


Be careful out there

People’s insecurity about the use of their own language is deep-seated and sad, and it leaves them defensive. (For God’s sake, never tell someone you are meeting for the first time that you are a copy editor; say that you sell crack to schoolchildren.) They hold on to misinformation taught in elementary school, or they go looking for advice. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of bad advice out there.

A gentleman named Sam Greenspan operates a Web site called 11 Points, at which he posts top-ten lists plus one. Earlier this month he posted “11 Little-Known Grammatical Errors That Will Shock and Horrify You.” Shocked and horrified indeed was I, because a substantial amount of his advice was either misguided or flat wrong.

Item: He insists that hopefully may only be used in the sense of in a hopeful manner, never in the sense of it is hoped that. Sadly, the hopefully wars of the 1970s and 1980s continue like the Korean stalemate, without even an armistice. But many adverbs of emotion are used as sentence adverbs in English (as in the previous sentence), and no one objects. Give it up.

Item: He takes could care less as meaning its literal sense of having some capacity to care rather than couldn’t care less. But English idioms are not necessarily logical, and I have never encountered anyone who mistook could care less for meaning anything other than couldn’t care less. Want to guess how much I care about this issue?

Item: You’ve got mail for you have mail is a construction Mr. Greenspan deplores, even though have got has been well established in English since Chaucer went to grammar school and, Bryan Garner says, “adds emphasis and is perfectly idiomatic.”

Item: I too once insisted that anxious and eager could not be used interchangeably, that the former had to be limited to states of anxiety rather than hopeful expectation. But the language is what its users make it, and anxious for eager, like aggravate for irritate, appears to be well established and not worth a cavil. You can, like Canute, order the tide not to come in, but you will get your feet wet.

Item: Mr. Greenspan, like the Associated Press Stylebook (that repository of outdated and unreliable advice), is under the impression that two objects must be in motion before they can collide. That’s because the Latin root of the verb means “to strike together,” the co, from com, indicating that both are in motion. But while etymology suggests meaning, it does not legislate it, and English, you may have noticed, is not Latin. R.W. Burchfield, the late editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, said in his revision of Fowler that there is no reason that a vehicle cannot collide with a bollard as well as with another moving vehicle.  

Mr. Greenspan means well, and what he says is what you can find in a number of outdated or unreliable sources. When you are in need of advice on language and usage, dear ones, just come back here.