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Fulsome:

I'm often skeptical of claims that some common usage is "wrong," partly because I'm not sure that there is a coherent and useful definition of linguistic "wrongness" other than "divergent from common usage."

But there are often good reasons to avoid certain usages, even if they are technically quite correct. Using "fulsome" to mean "abundant" is one example. The Oxford English Dictionary gives "Characterized by abundance, possessing or affording copious supply; abundant, plentiful, full" as the first definition for "fulsome," attested back to 1250. The definition "Of language, style, behaviour, etc.: Offensive to good taste; esp. offending from excess or want of measure or from being 'over-done'" dates back only to 1663. Neither is listed as obsolete.

Yet while it's hard to say that it's somehow linguistically "wrong" to use "fulsome" to mean "abundant," and while many such usages might not even be ambiguous, they are still likely to be rhetorically ineffective: If you want to convey a positive or a neutral message, you shouldn't use a word that will bring up a negative image in the listener's mind, even if the listener will quickly realize that you're using the term in its positive or neutral sense. For instance, a positive review of the Diablo cigar in Forbes FYI (Feb. 24, 2005) should probably not have said, "It has a nutty aroma and a fulsome flavor that will stand up to the bullying of a big after-dinner Cognac."

Now there may be times that some people might choose to use a word despite the possibly negative reactions that it may evoke in some readers. For instance, I know that split infinitives annoy people, but I think that unsplitting the infinitive often makes the phrase sound stilted, so on balance I'm happy to keep splitting. (I'm also an obstinate fellow who's willing to fight this battle even at some modest cost to the rhetorical effectiveness of what I write.) I use "handicapped" and "rule of thumb" in spite of the fact that some people, who are duped by false claims about the terms' origins, consider them to be offensive; that's just cussedness on my part.

But when a word's unwanted connotation stems from an alternate meaning, and not what I see as an unsound rejection of the word that deserves to be fought, I prefer to avoid conjuring up that unwanted connotation; and I'd counsel others to do the same.

(Thanks to Ben Barros for reminding me about this matter.)

Tracy Johnson (www):
My guess is you may have read them already, but the "Anguished English" books by Richard Lederer were a fun read.
7.6.2006 3:30pm
MDJD2B (mail):
So was it OK to fire that Washington DC cival servant for using "niggardly" to meed stingy? (It is probably an unnecessary word in anyone's active vocabulary because of its similarity to the other word.)
7.6.2006 3:44pm
cirby (mail):
Such usage embiggens us all.
7.6.2006 3:49pm
Tuch (mail):
So, with the word, "notoriety" which is often used instead of "famous". If one says "I am notorious for [particular conduct] ...." the person is really casting aspersions on that person's cited conduct. A good editor would always strike the negative-seeming word, even though usage seems to have made the two words mean the same thing.
7.6.2006 3:52pm
Ben Barros (mail):
For those interested, I talk about the use of fulsome here.
7.6.2006 3:53pm
Ted Frank (www):
I think cirby meant to say that it's a perfectly cromulent word.
7.6.2006 3:56pm
Shelby (mail):
So now it's wrong to associate a negative cognate with cigar smoke? Seems to me the choice could have been quite deliberate.
7.6.2006 3:57pm
Steve P. (mail):
MDJD2B - are you referring to David Howard's resignation, who worked for D.C. Mayor Williams? If so, it's not an apt comparison; Mr. Howard was rehired, once it was clear he didn't say a word with racial overtones. That said, it's probably not a good word to use, because it has easy synonyms (stingy comes to mind), and can be misheard or misinterpreted by people who don't know the word.

Prof. Volokh, I am proud to happily erect the banner for split infinitives. Ugh... I probably would have done better without the demonstration.
7.6.2006 3:58pm
john dickinson (mail) (www):
I think there are a few different senses in which people say that a usage is "wrong." The most common, obv, is when the expression is ambiguous or communicates something different from what is intended. But "wrong" is also applied to usages that undermine other, preferred (and possibly more useful) usages. (See, e.g., "Begging the question.") These tend to be wrong for a while, and then at some point when/if the battle is lost they just aren't wrong anymore. This seems to be the sense of "wrong" that you object to, but I don't really see any problem with it analytically. Either way, I'm comfortable saying that the use of a phrase with a technically right denotation but an unintended connotation is "wrong" simpliciter (though I suppose it depends where you draw your semantic/pragmatic line).
7.6.2006 4:05pm
Aultimer:
"Niggardly" was different as that word only has one meaning. EV is counseling against using "jew" to mean "drive a hard bargain".
7.6.2006 4:06pm
Mike BUSL07 (mail) (www):
Wikipedia, helpful as ever:

Even as some grammarians (Alford, cited above; Bache, 1869; Hodgson, 1889) were condemning the split infinitive, others (Brown, 1851; Onions, 1904; Jespersen, 1905; Fowler and Fowler, cited above) were endorsing it. In the present day, all reference texts of grammar deem simple split infinitives unobjectionable. (Compound split infinitives remain controversial; see Special situations below.)


H. W. Fowler later wrote, in his 1926 Dictionary of Modern English Usage, that writers who avoid split infinitives are "bogy-haunted creatures". Curme's Grammar of the English Language (1931) says that, not only is the split infinitive correct, but it "should be furthered rather than censured, for it makes for clearer expression". The Columbia Guide to Standard American English (1993) notes that the split infinitive "eliminates all possibility of ambiguity", in contrast to the "potential for confusion" in an unsplit construction. The American Heritage Book of English Usage quoted above also opposes the condemnation.
7.6.2006 4:07pm
Ron Hardin (mail) (www):
The play off of the senses of a word is actually used, and fairly easily, by ordinary speakers ; and studied extensively in Wm. Empson's _The Structure of Complex Words_.

It doesn't interest linguists, but does intersect literature strongly. The mystery remains how such a huge calculation is so easily done in everyday use.

Empson's analysis is that it depends on which sense of the word is called out by the context, versus which sense is the common usage ``chief'' meaning, and which way around these go as subject and predicate of some implied doctrine. The doctrine is the point of the word.

Example : ``You can't take Amelia for long walks, Mr. Jones. She's delicate.'' The doctrine is that refined girls are sickly.

Other times, as in your examples, it's simply careless, and so gets noticed for that reason, instead of sneaking by.
7.6.2006 4:11pm
CEB:
But this begs the question: what about when words are actually used incorrectly, like "enormity" to mean "vastness," or "presently" to mean "now"?

Also, the putative origin of "rule of thumb" (the size of a rod a Roman could beat his wife with) is not true?
7.6.2006 4:16pm
CEB:

But there are often good reasons to avoid certain usages, even if they are technically quite correct.

What a queer thing to say.
7.6.2006 4:20pm
David M. Nieporent (www):
I use "handicapped" and "rule of thumb" in spite of the fact that some people, who are duped by false claims about the terms' origins, consider them to be offensive; that's just cussedness on my part.
I'll bite. I know the false claim about 'rule of thumb' (i.e., related to wife beating), but I've never even heard of one for 'handicapped.' What false claim is there?
7.6.2006 4:24pm
DJR:
Let me be the first to admit that, as a law school graduate nearing 40, I have not formed a particular negative connotation for "fulsome." Although I hope I would figure out from the context whether "abundant" "lavish" or "disgusting" was meant, without context, "abundant" is what the word sounds like it means. The link above by Property Prof convinces me that my degree of unfamiliarity with the word is at least represented among the law prof crowd.

So, in this commenter's opinion, you have to run with a pretty pointy-headed crowd to worry about the lack of rhetorical effectiveness in using "fulsome" to mean "abundant."

For an example of a "wrong" usage, see Alanis Morisette, in which we learn of the "irony" of a fly in one's chardonnay. Perhaps she was being ironic in the sense of saying something while meaning the opposite: That the song's laundry list of unfortunate occurrences are ironic when they are merely unfortunate.
7.6.2006 4:27pm
cirby (mail):
Before we deal with this stuff, we still have he whole flammable - inflammable - nonflammable - noninflammable business to work out.
7.6.2006 4:34pm
Adam Scales (mail):
David,

Actually, the "Rule of Thumb" is a bit more complicated. Such a rule clearly existed as late as 1861 in North Carolina. The case was State v. Rhodes, in which a trial judge instructed a jury that a husband was privileged to beat is wife if the rod was no thicker than his thumb.

Now, nobody thinks of it this way today, and I have no way of evaluating the sequence of accepted meanings (woodworking-wife beating? Wife-beating and woodworking, simultaneously?) However, that the phrase in fact had this connotation is not a myth.

By the way, I am a fan of the word "niggardly" because I read it in "White Fang" as a child. I'm also black, and enjoy the occasional lecture from some well-meaning white person about why we should excuse the ignorance of listeners by avoiding it. (It is difficult, for example, to use the word "niggardly" in a context that could even be confused with some variation of "nigger". Straining hard, perhaps the stereotype about blacks and tipping? In any event, such context rarely appears when the P.C. police swing into action.)
7.6.2006 4:36pm
Avi:
I've never even heard of one for 'handicapped.' What false claim is there?

Some allege that "handicapped" comes from "cap in hand," associating disability and indigence. Snopes traces the word's etymology here.
7.6.2006 4:46pm
CEB:
Adam,
I found the case you mentioned; actually, the NC Supreme COurt held that a man does not have the right to whip his wife, but the state would not punish him for it, or in the Court's words:

The court will not inflict upon society the greater evil of raising the curtain upon domestic privacy, to punish the lesser evil of trifling violence.

For those interested, it's State v. Rhodes, 61 N.C. 453 (1868)--and it's still good law, with 26 citing decisions!
7.6.2006 5:07pm
Phutatorius (www):
Are we sure that we're not looking at another Bethlem Royal Hospital--->"bedlam" corruption here, and "fulsome" doesn't take its origin from Folsom Prison?

Oh, sure, you can come at me with your OED, but I've got Johnny Cash's live albums on my side . . .
7.6.2006 5:22pm
MTF:
It seems to me that "wrong" in this setting has a pretty simple meaning, having to do with clarity in expressing what the speaker means to express. If you use a word that doesn't mean what you think it does, this will ordinarily be wrong because, even if the listener is able to figure out what you mean, there will be a momentary jolt of adjusting the listener's understanding from the first (standard) meaning of the word to the second (non-standard, current) one. This applies to grammatical constructions just as well as to words' meanings.

That rule isn't always easy to apply, though, and split infinitives are a fine example of why. I, for example, am both a) well aware that the weight of grammatical authority supports split infinitives and b) still irritated every time I see one. This is partly my own mulishness, but I'll also be a little more charitable to myself and say that the simple fact is that I was just brought up thinking that split infinitives are wrong, and that rule hasn't completely faded out of my head. Even though I'm in a minority with that view, it's not a tiny one.

The question of "wrongness," then, depends on who the listener/reader is going to be: if you're writing for me, then it's worth taking some trouble and writing something that may not flow quite so prettily to avoid splitting an infinitive. If you don't, it will distract me from what you're trying to say, and thus be wrong. The fact that I know you're not "wrong" in the estimation of any serious authorities does nothing to prevent my initial reaction against the usage.

I realize that this rule has a broad reach, and would also prohibit the dictionary-correct use of a word that the audience is not likely to understand. I think I'm ok with that, although there must be some cases where it's acceptable to use words that you know won't be immediately understood, whether for the purpose of educating your audience or for the pleasure of a word game. In normal settings, though, where the point of writing or speaking is to communicate, any word or structure that fails to do so is ill-suited to its purpose, which is to say poorly chosen, and thus wrong.
7.6.2006 5:38pm
Christopher M (mail):
But this begs the question: what about when words are actually used incorrectly, like "enormity" to mean "vastness," or "presently" to mean "now"?

This is a meta-joke, right?
7.6.2006 5:44pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
CEB: Can you tell us what sources support your assertion that "presently" to mean "now" is "incorrect"? The OED lists this as one of the meanings of the term, dating back to 1485; it notes that it's obsolete since the 17th century in literary English, but is "in regular use in most Eng. dialects, and common in Sc. writers; revived in U.S. and to some extent in Great Britain in 20th c.," and cites many uses in the 1800s and 1900s, including in Walter Scott and John Ruskin. The American Heritage takes a similar view, noting the meaning as being "widely found ... in literate speech and writing," though acknowledging the "lingering prejudice against this use."

I actually counsel students not to use the word "presently" to mean "at present," and don't use it myself, to avoid the (rare) ambiguity and (more common) annoyed reaction from those who dislike the word. But I just wonder why this long-attested, dictionary-noted definition should be called "incorrect."
7.6.2006 6:03pm
Bob Loblaw (www):

This is a meta-joke, right?
I was thinking the same thing. If so, well done. If not....
7.6.2006 6:17pm
Michelle Dulak Thomson (mail):
Those -some words tend to be, er, troublesome, don't they? Fulsome, noisome, toothsome . . .

An editor of mine took me to task once for using "fulsome." It was a weird situation: I was using it to describe a violinist's sound, and meant to convey that the sound was obnoxiously, annoyingly over-rich, cloying. My editor thought I didn't know that the word had any negative connotation, and that I just thought it a fancy synonym for "full." After consulting a few dictionaries between us, we decided that the meaning I'd gotten in my head was basically the "correct" meaning contaminated a bit by the "wrong" one. Best to rewrite — if it wasn't clear to him what I meant, it probably wasn't going to be clear to a lot of others either.

That sort of vibe-blending happens to words occasionally. "Portentous" comes to mind; also, I think, "enormity."

Re "presently," I'd always assumed this was a transatlantic split, with the Brits meaning "in a little while," and the Yanks "at the moment." Rather like "momentarily" (Brits: "in a moment"; Yanks: "for a moment," except that now that it's universal flight-attendent-speak we're all used to the first sense here too).
7.6.2006 6:54pm
lucia (mail) (www):

The court will not inflict upon society the greater evil of raising the curtain upon domestic privacy, to punish the lesser evil of trifling violence.


For those interested, it's State v. Rhodes, 61 N.C. 453 (1868)--and it's still good law, with 26 citing decisions!

Oh my! Were activist judges recognizing some sort of right to privacy as early as 1868?
7.6.2006 7:13pm
lucia (mail) (www):
The question of "wrongness," then, depends on who the listener/reader is going to be: if you're writing for me, then it's worth taking some trouble and writing something that may not flow quite so prettily to avoid splitting an infinitive. If you don't, it will distract me from what you're trying to say, and thus be wrong.


For the most part I agree with you. Writing should be adapted for the intended audience.

Now, I need to ask a question. I often find sentences written so as to avoid any and all split infinitives stilted and I am distracted by the cumbersome phrasing. Were you writing for me, would you take pains to write prettily even if that required you to split an infinitive?
7.6.2006 7:26pm
CEB:
Christopher &Bob,
Yes, that was a joke.

Professor,
What bugs me about this use (or should I say, "usage") of "presently" is that it's a nonstandard use that's the result of an attempt to sound sophisticated. It's usually heard from the witness stand; e.g., "I'm presently not employed," similar to language like "The defendant and myself then proceeded to his residence, where we discovered two gentlemen entering the front door..."

lucia,
I noticed that too, after I posted--interesting. And it wasn't even cited by Griswold.

And finally, again from the Simpsons: "I see she is as brainsome as she is toothsome!"
7.6.2006 7:48pm
MTF:
lucia:

Now, I need to ask a question. I often find sentences written so as to avoid any and all split infinitives stilted and I am distracted by the cumbersome phrasing. Were you writing for me, would you take pains to write prettily even if that required you to split an infinitive?



Yes. The only reason I wouldn't would be if the balance between making myself happy with my writing and making my audience happy with it tilted more towards me. But if you were, say, a judge and I a lawyer, or you a professor and I a student, then I would certainly swallow my own objections and write in the manner that you'll find easiest to understand.
7.6.2006 9:57pm
lucia (mail) (www):
MTF,
In that case, our criteria are the same. When you are my audience, and I want to please you more than myself, then I would take care to avoid splitting infinitives.
7.7.2006 12:17am
Mahlon:
Eugene - For once, I agree with you. (I would also note that much of my disagreement on other matters is, as with you, pure cussedness.) Word choice is like every other writing or grammar rule, guideline, preference and usage. It should always be governed by the objective of writing (and speech, for that matter) - to communicate clearly. If the use of a word does not promote that objective, the writer (or speaker) should question its use.

We speak of rules and preferences, but in the end, what a writer does is simply exercise judgment over grammar, usage, word choice and even punctuation. It is the exercise of that judgment which makes a writing notable, for good or bad. As I have previously stated, many of the "rules" can be bent or even broken, as long as meaning is clear.

The audience and formality of the writing will often dictate the liberties that the writer may feel comfortable taking. The risks associated with misunderstanding also come into play. For instance, using the word "fulsome" in a cigar review carries with it little risk of damage if misunderstood.

On the other hand, I think we can agree the need for a rewrite of a medicine prescription which says: For adults, give two teaspoons every 12 hours, for children under 5, give ten times less."
7.7.2006 2:23pm
JBercaw (mail):
My pervasive pet peeve in legal opinions, memoranda and conversation is the word "methodology." Originally, the word meant knowledge or a study of methods. Now its prevailing meaning, by no less than the USSC, is synonymous with "method."

I guess using methodology instead of method appears more erudite, but its a false erudition.
7.7.2006 3:23pm
lucia (mail) (www):

On the other hand, I think we can agree the need for a rewrite of a medicine prescription which says: For adults, give two teaspoons every 12 hours, for children under 5, give ten times less." readers' expectations and sensitivities in this matter.

Are we back to ten times less?

I suspect we could equally well agree to avoid saying "give one tenth as much".

This has little to do with any claimed lack of clarity of "10 times less". The problems with that instruction are 1) patients shouldn't be forced to calculate their dosage and 2) dosage should be easy to measure.

If patients need to measure 1/5th of a teaspoon of medicine, the correct solution is to include a very small spoon in the package. Then say "for children under 5, give one small spoonful every 12 hours."

Sometimes, the solution is proper packaging.
7.7.2006 6:33pm