Tuesday, February 28, 2012

fulsome blues

( a version of this article appeared in the National Post on Feb 27, 2012)

If I'm fulsomely disinterested and nomplussed, I'm skunked


Howard Richler

If an editor gives me fulsome praise should I be disinterested or nonplussed? It totally depends on the meaning I abscribe to the three underlined words. Let me explain my quandary.

When Simon Winchester wrote The Professor and the Madman in 1999 describing how “madman” Dr. William Chester Minor contributed to the making of the OED under the auspices of “Professor” James Augustus Henry Murray, he received fulsome praise from all for his splendid book.

Well, not quite. Winchester was deluged by angry letters from readers of the book because in Chapter 9, he used “fulsome” as a synonym for “extravagant” or “over the top,” upsetting a certain segment of his audience.

Many readers felt that this usage was erroneous because the original meaning of the word was “offensively excessive” and Winchester says that detractors expressed alarm “that an authority on the language would make that mistake and that my use of fulsome eroded the credibility of the book as a whole.” Winchester told me that when he wrote his subsequent book, The Meaning of Everything, which accounts in greater detail how the OED was compiled, he used “fulsome” in a similar fashion “to annoy the pedants who excoriated me for using it in the first.”

Increasingly, however, many people use the word fulsome not to mean “extravagant” or“offensively excessive” but simply to mean “full,” as in a “fulsome head of hair.” I consider this usage incorrect but suspect it will eventually represent the dominant sense of the word.

In the case of disinterested, traditionally it meant impartial but nowadays the vast majority of people use it to mean “not interested.” I regret this modern usage because an important distinction is being lost and would hope that hockey referees are disinterested in the traditional rather than the new sense.

Nonplussed, similarly has gone from meaning “bewildered” to “unfazed.” This was the sense Barack Obama used the word when he stated “I've been really happy by how nonplussed they've {his daughters} been” by media scrutiny.

This also asks the question, (I can`t bring myself to say “beg the question, ”) How long do we insist that older meanings should prevail?

Truth be told, there is no simple answer, because there is no definitive arbiter on what qualifies as proper English. According to Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary and other American dictionaries, many new meanings are acceptable. For example, “peruse” can mean not only to “examine carefully” but to “read over in a casual manner”; “disinterested” can mean “not interested” as well as “impartial”; and “enormity” can mean the same as “enormousness.” On the other hand, some dictionaries and many learned usage commentators regard these positions as linguistic heresy.

Lexicographer Bryan Garner in Garner's Modern American Usage states that “when a word undergoes a marked change from one use to another – a phase that might take ten years or a hundred- it's likely to be the subject of dispute.” He adds that “a word is most hotly disputed in the middle of the process: any use of it is likely to distract some readers.” He characterizes these disputed words as “skunked” as best avoided. Hence, although there might be some ancient pedant who believes that “egregious” should still mean remarkably good as it literally means in Latin, “above the flock,” the fact remains that it has not been used in a positive sense since 1845 and will not make the “skunked” list

Language commentator William Safire started out as a rigid prescriptivist, but even he acknowledged in his book In Love With Norma Loquendi that the masses represent the final arbiter of language: “The rules laid down by elites are to be respected … but in the end democracy, which goes by the name of common usage, will work its will … When the population challenges the order over a period of time, Norma Loquendi – the everyday voice of the native speaker – is the heroine who changes the order and raises a new standard.”


Monday, February 6, 2012

run for the ages

(a version of this article appeared in the april edition of lexpert)

Run for the Ages


Howard Richler

The longest entry in the OED2 was for the verb set which required 60,000 words to describe some 430 senses. As entries began to be revised for the OED3 in sequence starting from M, the longest entry became make in 2000, then put in 2007.” Wikipedia

As of 2011, there is a new ruler in the lexicographical world “run.”

The OED shows 82 distinct definitions of run as a verb and 51 separate ones of the word as a noun but this is only one chapter of the story. In fact, in its primary meaning of “senses relating to locomotion involving the use of the legs, and uses deriving from these,” it shows no less than a dozen forms. Not only, does it mean “to go with quick steps on alternate feet,” it also has eleven more sub-meanings in just this one category including the use of the tongue, riding on horseback and “to partake of the leg (as opposed to the wing) of a cooked chicken or other fowl.”

This stll leaves 81 verbal definitions that include “running for office,” (politics), “running the bank,” (making a sudden demand for funds), “running the ball” (football and rugby), “running the scent” (hunting) “running goods,” (smuggling) “run of a show,” (play, film or exhibition) “running a cornice,” (buliding) and “run in families” (familial traits). There are also many senses that relate to functionality such as “run a test,” “run a machine,” “run a business,” and “run a country” and over forty senses that

deal with liquids.

Run is also quite prolific as a noun and aside from the many well-known sports senses it enjoys, there are also nautical, musical, and mining meaning. Even more obscure is its use as a term for an abode of a bower bird. When pluralized and used with the definite article it refers to diarrhoea. There are also countless idiomatic “run” expressions such an “running a table” in billiards, “running off” to be married, “running down the clock” at a sporting event, “running off at the mouth,” “running hot and cold” and “take the money and run.”

Recently, it took OED lexicographer Peter Gilliver recently almost a year to decipher all the myriad senses of the word run in the OED's third edition. Gilliver calculated that the verbal sense alone of “run” ran to 645 separate meanings and that the total number of words for the entry was “over 130,000” even more than Austen's beloved novel Pride and Prejudice which boasts 128,971 words.

Lest you feel at this point somewhat chastened by your lack of knowledge of so many of the senses of “run,” it should be pointed out that some of them are obsolete.

For example, definition #26 of run as a noun is “fistula” and there is but one citation from 1648 and definition # 9 as a noun “the fact of being visited by customers” is last recored in 1846. Similarly, the verbal sense of getting something hastily carried through is shown as a British colloquialism with only one citation in 1891. Also, some usages are strictly regional such as the noun use of run in Australia and New Zealand to refer to large open tract of land for grazing animals and the verb sense to refer to an uninterrupted period of sheep shearing.

In the OED's second edition completed in 1989 it was the word “set” that ruled supreme taking up more than “run.” “Set” was especialy more prolific as a verb; yet in a mere two decades it has lost its preeminence to “run.” How did this happen?

The answer is twofold. First, whereas in the past people would use “set” often for the placing of objects, in recent years we are more likely instead to use the verb “put.” Secondly, “run” is one of the dominant verbs of the cyber age; when we execute a computer program, we “run” it. It's logical that this computer use of run has led to our proclivity to employ the word in other spheres. But to a greater extent I believe that the increased use of run, compared to the demise of set, reflects a victory of flux over stasis. In our helter-skelter world run reflects our constant frenetic activity. Whereas set might represent a past that was more staid and perhaps classier, run represents a more athletic, sexier future.

The sun has set on “set.” May the new lexicographic emperor have a long run.

Howard Richler's latest book is Strange Bedfellows: The Private Lives of Words.