The future and the past

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Tom Chivers, the Telegraph's assistant comment editor, has posted some comments of his own on the linguistic side of a recent British parliamentary controversy ("Nadine Dorries, linguistic pioneer", The Telegraph 9/12/2011). David Cameron said something about Ms. Dorries that some perceived as offensive; he later apologized to her, and she responded:

I don’t for one moment believe Mr Cameron meant to insult me with his “frustrated” remark. […] He has since apologised fulsomely.

Mr. Chivers pounces on that fulsomely — but first, he links to a Language Log take-down of Simon Heffer, who used to write for the Telegraph:

Obviously, English is a living language, and meanings change. Etymology is all very well and good, but the only final arbiter of what a word means is what people understand it to mean. We no longer think of "Knight" as meaning "servant" (like the German Knecht), but that is what it used to mean. "Lord" and "Lady" derive from the Old English for "provider of bread" and "kneader of bread" respectively. The meanings change, and while the way that they change is interesting, you can't tell someone that they're wrong to say a car "collided with a tree" because the Latin root implies two moving objects; we're not speaking Latin any more.

But there are losses to meaning by which we can be saddened, and if "fulsome" goes the way of "bread-kneader", I for one will be saddened by it, because there will be no word now which says "offensively flattering or insincere", and instead there will be yet another which says "effusive" or "abundant".

I'm interested and pleased to see this evidence of journalistic uptake, so I hope that Mr. Chivers won't be offended if I point out two small problems.

First, as the cited post explains, Mr. Heffer's etymological theory about proper use of collide and collision being limited to two moving objects wasn't true even in Latin, where (for example) Petronius wrote of a cup thrown down and colliding with the floor.

And second, fulsome originally meant "copious, abundant". This developed gradually through "plump, fat" and "overfed, surfeited", through "cloying, excessive" and "disgusting, repulsive" to "gross or excessive flattery, over-demonstrative affection". But the original meanings never really went away.

Geoff Pullum discussed this question in "Fulsome use of the dictionary", 2/9/2009, quoting the usage note associated with the Merriam-Webster entry:

The senses shown above are the chief living senses of fulsome. Sense 2 ["aesthetically, morally, or generally offensive"], which was a generalized term of disparagement in the late 17th century, is the least common of these. Fulsome became a point of dispute when sense 1 ["copious; generous in amount, extent, or spirit; full and well developed"], thought to be obsolete in the 19th century, began to be revived in the 20th. The dispute was exacerbated by the fact that the large dictionaries of the first half of the century missed the beginnings of the revival. Sense 1 has not only been revived but has spread in its application and continues to do so. The chief danger for the user of fulsome is ambiguity. Unless the context is made very clear, the reader or hearer cannot be sure whether such an expression as "fulsome praise" is meant in sense 1b or in sense 4.

And many of the classic "term of disparagement" uses don't fit Mr. Chivers' "offensively flattering or insincere" mold  — thus Alexander Pope wrote (Satires of Dr. John Donne, Dean of St. Paul's, Versified):

Well, I could wish, that still in lordly domes
Some beasts were kill'd, though not whole hecatombs
That both extremes were banish'd from their walls,
Carthusian fasts, and fulsome bacchanals;

But still, Chivers deserves credit for this very un Heffersaurian principle: "the only final arbiter of what a word means is what people understand it to mean".  The rest is mere fact.

Update — more on the subject from Mr. Chivers ("The English language and my not-so-fulsome grasp of it", 9/13/2011:

Apparently some journalists and politicians don't feel they've made it until they've been lampooned in Private Eye. Well, for me, something comparable has just happened. The magnificent Language Log has taken a look at my post yesterday about Nadine Dorries and the word "fulsome", and pointed out – as quite a few of you did in the comments – that I was, not to put too fine a point on it, wrong:

…fulsome originally meant "copious, abundant". This developed gradually through "plump, fat" and "overfed, surfeited", through "cloying, excessive" and "disgusting, repulsive" to "gross or excessive flattery, over-demonstrative affection". But the original meanings never really went away.

That is, in the end, me told. They say some other nice things – mainly, that I deserve credit for admitting "the only final arbiter of what a word means is what people understand it to mean", which they describe as "un-Heffersaurian", for some reason.

He also says that

I've responded underneath the Language Log piece, which I hope will be visible there soon …

But his comment is neither awaiting moderation nor (as far as Ben Zimmer and I have been able to determine) trappped by our Akismet spam filter.  I'm not sure what has happened, but it seems that Akismet must flush its repository automatically when it reaches a certain size, and we are now getting an average of more than four thousand spam comments a day.

Anyhow, here is what Mr. Chivers offers at the Telegraph as "the slightly edited gist of [his] reply":

As you say, “fulsome” originally meant what Ms Dorries thinks it means, and that the meaning has never been out of use, so the whole premise of my post was, pretty much, nonsense. I suppose that, once you get beyond the fact that words mean what people think they mean, it’s just personal taste. I liked the more subtle and specific meaning of “fulsome” as “offensively over-the-top", on the basis that there are lots of words meaning “full", “abundant” and “effusive” already. But, sadly for me, nowadays (and not only nowadays, as you point out) it means both: so Ms Dorries’s use was perfectly accurate. I don’t like it, but that's my problem.

He closes with these flattering sentences:

For those of you who don't know Language Log, please do go and have a read around. They are the geniuses who inspired this, still one of my favourite things I've ever written: Dan Brown's 20 worst sentences.


  1. Eric P Smith said,

    September 13, 2011 @ 10:32 am

    Curious. I am a native English speaker, age 62, and I have heard and used the adjective ‘fulsome’ many times, and I have never been aware of the pejorative sense, except when it was made explicit (for example in the phrase “embarrassingly fulsome”). I am now left wondering, how many times have I misunderstood, or been misunderstood?

  2. Barrie England said,

    September 13, 2011 @ 12:04 pm

    The OED entry is helpful:

    It is possible that there may have been a Middle English 'fūlsum' [from 'fūl', foul] which has coalesced with this; but the supposition is not absolutely necessary to account for the development of senses.

  3. richard howland-bolton said,

    September 13, 2011 @ 12:17 pm

    In Ms Dorries context I would think that fulsome ambiguity would be quite useful.

  4. JR said,

    September 13, 2011 @ 6:58 pm

    I generally understand fulsome to be a negative term, but not when applied somewhat quaintly to concrete nouns such as feast, spread, harvest, liquor, etc.

  5. JMM said,

    September 13, 2011 @ 7:56 pm

    Like Mr. Chivers, I can handle 'random' meaning something unexpected; I can even deal with a similar meaning for ironic (sometimes). And fulsome has always had strong negative connotation, especially with praise or apology (a fulsome feast is negative too, but I'd probably go and only regret it later.). But I expect fulsome to be used 'wrongly' (differently from my own meaning) too, and I don't get too bent out of shape by it.

    However, I just looked at my alma mater's entry on one of those magazine college rankings, and found them described as "notorious", specifically their sports programs were described that way and, I don't think they have ever had a major sanction from the NCAA. Meanwhile, schools which have had many penalties and are on probation right now and have more championships were not called "notorious".

    But I don't know if my indignation is righteous (and I don't even follow their sports closely) or not; I don't know what the writer of that article meant by the word. Just as with this use of fulsome, it can mean it's opposite. I also know this isn't that uncommon a change, but I can, like Chivers, wish people would stop doing it. Yet, at least I can feel smug knowing that I'm smarter than some intern at USN&WR, even if my BA is from the notorious University of Enormous State.

  6. Rubrick said,

    September 13, 2011 @ 9:20 pm

    Mr. Chivers has shown himself to be wise, well-read, humble, and a believer in truth. I fear his days in journalism may be numbered.

  7. Tom Chivers said,

    September 14, 2011 @ 2:40 am

    Oh dear. Was my comment lost in the ether? Hey ho, you didn't miss much.

    The only other things I was going to say were "this is indeed an an honour" and something to make it clear that I was aware that "collidere" by no means only implied a collision between moving objects, as you rightly pointed out, but that I felt it would be a bit rude to a former colleague to really hammer the point home.

    Anyway, thanks for the post. And thanks, Rubrick, for the kind words.



  8. Justice4Rinka said,

    September 14, 2011 @ 5:17 am

    There are two misuses that really drive me berserk.

    One is the word "problematic" used to mean "troublesome" when originally it used to mean "doubtful", or more precisely, "possibly but not necessarily so" – "the witness's statement was problematic".

    I suppose this arises because in some contexts, the two can in fact amount to almost the same. If one read that someone considered the reliability of their Lada car problematic, then depending on what meaning of that word they were taking, it could mean either of two things. One, that the car's reliability is doubtful; or two, that the car's not-in-doubt (un)reliability means it's a pain to own.

    Either way you still get the intended message that the car is reliably unreliable. But as Tom Chivers has said, we're left without the useful sense of "problematic" that we used to have. No doubt someone will be able to fish up 300-year-old instances of "problematic" meaning "troublesome"…

    The other one that irritates me – and IIRC it was either Ted Lowe or David Vine who started this in the 1970s in the context of snooker match commentary – is the use of "fortuitous" to mean "fortunate". Eg, "Steve Davis was very fortuitous there, he's ended up right on the black."

    In the original sense of "fortuitous", that of "happening by pure chance", it seems impossible for a person to be "fortuitous". Only an event or an outcome could be. So in that example, the black ball's run fortuitously left Steve Davis with an easy shot, but Steve Davis was fortunate, not fortuitous.

    Part of me feels like a crusty old git moaning about this…

  9. Pflaumbaum said,

    September 14, 2011 @ 8:26 am

    @ Justice4Rinka

    I've read enough LL posts to be willing to bet my copy of CGEL that the use of fortuitous to mean fortunate was not the innovation of a 1970s snooker commentator.

  10. Ian Preston said,

    September 14, 2011 @ 8:42 am


    Sports commentators' use of `fortuitous' to mean `fortunate' awakens my own inner urge to peeve but Merriam Webster suggests again that there's a case for tolerance based on a usage which is too long-established to sustain your attribution to snooker commentators: "It has been in standard if not elevated use for some 70 years, but is still disdained by some critics."

  11. Justice4Rinka said,

    September 14, 2011 @ 9:06 am

    Perhaps the moment when sports commentators start misusing a term marks the point when it is irretrievably embedded in the language?

  12. Edith Maxwell said,

    September 14, 2011 @ 10:38 am

    All results from a Google search for Heffersaurian come from this blog. Can we get a clarification of that word, please?

    And I totally agree with Chivers' description of LanguageLog as "magnificent."

  13. Edith Maxwell said,

    September 14, 2011 @ 11:29 am

    A little more digging led me to Simon Heffer of the Daily Telegraph, described in the article ( about his departure as "Long-serving associate editor and style guide scourge." Somehow I think I've found the Heffer from which the adjective sprang.

    True, or gone astray?

  14. Pflaumbaum said,

    September 14, 2011 @ 12:42 pm

    For those wondering about the Heffersaurian reference, see these LL posts:

    English grammar: not for debate

    Possessive with gerund: Tragic loss or good riddance?

    Mr. Heffer huffs again

    Strictly incompetent: pompous garbage from Simon Heffer

  15. Rodger C said,

    September 14, 2011 @ 9:02 pm

    Surely "fortuitous" is going the way of any number of words that have shifted their meaning from "by chance" to "by happy chance," including "happy"?

  16. Justice4Rinka said,

    September 15, 2011 @ 4:25 am

    I think what irritates us language pedants is that the changes we are seeing tend to be the result of stupid misuses, rather than legitimate evolution or useful innovation.

    If 'fortuitous' ends up defined in the dictionary as meaning 'lucky' because so many people misuse it that it's always understood that way, that's regression rather than progression; we didn't gain a word, we lost one.

    English writers of English can sometimes be snooty about 'Americanisms', but there are a lot of Americanisms that are indispensable: to 'stub your toe', saying 'hello' to open a conversation, knocking at doors rather than scratching at them, and so on. There are relatively few gratuitous duplications. 'Maybe' is an Americanism that the language didn't need because it had 'perhaps' already.

    So I don't think this is wheezy old fogeyishness. I'm happy with bytes and interfaces and the coining of words. It's the repurposing of words to leave a gap that bugs me. I should get out more.

  17. Army1987 said,

    September 15, 2011 @ 10:28 am

    I, for one, am not going to mourn problematic meaning ‘doubtful’ (though I don't think I ever noticed that; “how many times have I misunderstood, or been misunderstood?”), because it's a hell of a confusing word. Problem definitely doesn't ever mean ‘doubtfulness’ in present-day English, and there are cognates of problematic in other languages which indeed mean ‘troublesome’. Yes, there are lots of other words transparently made up of still-productive morphemes but with completely counter-intuitive meanings (awful != awesome, etc.), but they all are very high-frequency words which any halfway decently fluent/educated speaker is extremely unlikely to be unfamiliar with.

    'Maybe' is an Americanism that the language didn't need because it had 'perhaps' already.

    I don't feel them as perfectly synonymous: I'm under the impression that the latter is a bit more metalinguistic, i.e. maybe means that I'm not sure about the situation I'm describing but perhaps often means that I'm merely unsure that I'm using the best words to describe it. Also, the latter sounds more formal to me.

  18. Pflaumbaum said,

    September 15, 2011 @ 6:49 pm

    @Justice4Rinka –

    Re the evolution of fortuitous resulting in us 'losing a word', see Roger C's comment above yours. Did it matter that we 'lost a word' when happy shifted meaning from 'fortunate' to 'content'? No, we gained new words for fortunate, like, well, fortunate.

    Re maybe, it seems unlikely that it's an Americanism as it's been in use since the 15th century… since before perhaps, in fact.

  19. wm tanksley said,

    September 15, 2011 @ 10:34 pm

    The "Three Amigos" quote seems appropriate here…


    El Guapo: Would you say I have a plethora of pinatas?
    Jefe: A what?
    El Guapo: A *plethora*.
    Jefe: Oh yes, you have a plethora.
    El Guapo: Jefe, what is a plethora?
    Jefe: Why, El Guapo?
    El Guapo: Well, you told me I have a plethora. And I just would like to know if you know what a plethora is. I would not like to think that a person would tell someone he has a plethora, and then find out that that person has *no idea* what it means to have a plethora.
    Jefe: Forgive me, El Guapo. I know that I, Jefe, do not have your superior intellect and education. But could it be that once again, you are angry at something else, and are looking to take it out on me?

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