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.”


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