Category: Language

Fulsome pedantry

OED cover, via the OUP websiteYesterday, one Irish politician called on another to make an apology to the Irish people. This would just be another forgettable eddy in a political coffee cup were it not for the fact that the demand was for a “fulsome” apology. Can this be right?

The Oxford English Dictionary (pictured left) in its entry (sub req’d) for “fulsome” lists six various obsolete usages (in which it simply means abundant or generous) and then gives the following modern definition of that word:

Of language, style, behaviour, etc.: Offensive to good taste; esp. offending from excess or want of measure or from being ‘over-done’. Now chiefly used in reference to gross or excessive flattery, over-demonstrative affection, or the like.

As a note to the definition of “fulsome” in the Compact Oxford English Dictionary Online (no sub req’d) makes clear:

Although the earliest sense of fulsome was ‘abundant’, this is now regarded by many as incorrect; the correct meaning today is said to be ‘excessively flattering’. This gives rise to ambiguity: the possibility that while for one speaker fulsome praise will be a genuine compliment, for others it will be interpreted as an insult.

Merriam-Webster Online (no sub req’d) says that the meaning of the word “fulsome” became a point of dispute when the largely positive meanings

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. … [The positive sense] 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 [the positive or negative sense] …

This revival has certainly been missed by the OED. I suspect that this is because it is not so much a revival of an older meaning as a straightforward and recent error in supposing that “fulsome” is just a grander word for “full” and thus simply means copious. For that reason most style guides that address the issue deprecate the positive usage.

I can’t imagine that Irish politicians are demanding insincere apologies of each other; I also doubt that they are knowingly in the vanguard of an incipient revival of the older positive usages; I rather suspect that – with some knowledgeable exceptions – they have fallen into the common error of using “fulsome” as a fancy word for “full”. However, in this mistake, they are in good company. In Canada earlier this year, as reported by the Globe and Mail, a lawyer grilling former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney over bribery allegations

suggested that he had not been “fulsome” in his responses. Rather than questioning what the lawyer meant by this adjective, Mulroney just denied whatever the accusation was. “I am being fulsome, and truthful,” …

Indeed, in the New York Times last year, William Safire took President Obama to task for using “fulsome” in this way and for other similar solecisms. His advice is, as always, worth following:

Never use a word sure to sow confusion.

Volokh concurs. When it comes to “fulsome”, then, to avoid common error and unnecessary confusion, we should just say no. If those who have been guilty of its sloppy use (or even of its fulsome misuse) wish to apologise for this mistake, there is only one question: will the apology be fulsome?

Creative Commons in Ireland: Cimín Cruthaitheach in Éireann

Creative CommonsThere is a tension at the heart of creativity. On the one hand, I might be moved by the muse to write/paint/create something interesting (I know, if you’ve read anything on this blog, you might wonder if that muse has ever struck, but bear with me). If I am, the law is likely to reward me for doing so by giving me a copyright (or similar intellectual property right) in what I have written/painted/created. On the other hand, the muse might strike you in such a way as to develop what I have done (entirely plausible, if you ask me), but my copyright protection can make this hard for you. You could email me and ask me if I’d let you do it, and I’d probably say yes. But now, multiply this a million million fold, to take into account everyone who has copyright and everyone who wants to develop a copyrighted work. Asking for individual permission every time becomes a logistical nightmare. So, Creative Commons has filled the gap, by drafting licences which any copyright holder may use to determine how others may exercise their copyright rights. If you look below the last post at the bottom of this page, you will see that I use just such a licence to allow you to use and share the contents of this blog, provided that you do so for non-commercial reasons and give me an attribution.

The terms of this licence are drafted having regard to US copyright law, which is similar to Irish copyright law in the same way as close cousins are similar: there is a strong family resemblance, but there are very important differences. The similarities are enough that I can reasonably use the US text, and I do; but it would be better to have a version drafted specifically to take Irish law into account. As I have mentioned previously on this blog, for some time now, Dr Darius Whelan and Louise Crowley of the Law Faculty, UCC have been working on just such a draft of an Irish Creative Commons Licence.

We are now fortunate to have the next fruits of that labour, as they have just announced that an Irish draft of the Creative Commons license version 3.0 is now available for public discussion, on either their mailing list or their blog. They have taken the existing US Creative Commons v3.0 licence and localised it to Irish conditions in the light of the Copyright and Related Rights Act, 2000 (also here) as amended in 2004 (also here) and 2007 (also here).

They have produced a good summary (pdf) of their reasoning for the various changes they recommend. It seems to me thorough, comprehensive, and persuasive – all in all, an excellent piece of work which will benefit the entire Irish online community. I eagerly look forward to the day when I make this blog subject to the Irish version of the licence. In the meantime, click on the widget below:

Interested always, disinterested often, but uninterested never

New York Times logo, via the NYT siteWilliam Safire (NYT bio | wikipedia), a New York Times Magazine columnist on language, has the following vignette in today’s column (sub no longer req’d!):

A Pet Named Peeve

Two cheerful dogs grace our household, but in my imagination we also have a dog named Peeve. He is perpetually grumpy; complains about his dog food, collar is too tight, bed lumpy, not getting enough exercise, all that. What especially gets his hackles to rise is human language he doesn’t understand.

Disinterested puts him off. When he turns his nose up at a bowl of dry kibble and I say, “Whatsamatter, disinterested in eating?” this erudite Portuguese water dog emits a low growl. He and I know that word means “objective, fair, without a partisan slant or pecuniary involvement.” But it is used by writers who mean “uninterested” and allowed to stand, reeking of misuse, undermining clarity, by editors who could (not) care less. I can’t tell you what my pet, Peeve, scornfully does on a newspaper that treats the language with such unrespect.


George Orwell’s 5 Rules for Effective Writing Style

George OrwellGeorge Orwell (left) wrote that when he was about sixteen, he “suddenly discovered the joy of mere words, i.e. the sounds and associations of words. The lines from PARADISE LOST,

So hee with difficulty and labour hard
Moved on: with difficulty and labour hee.

which do not now seem to me so very wonderful, sent shivers down my backbone; and the spelling ‘hee’ for ‘he’ was an added pleasure”.

(See his essay Why I Write, in which he concluded that writers typically write out of sheer egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse, or political impulse – if you’re a blogger, which one explains you? Do you recognise yourself in his conclusion that “[a]ll writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery”?).

Anyway, I was reminded of this when I recently came across John Wesley’s wonderful post on PickTheBrain about George Orwell’s 5 Rules for Effective Writing Style. Here are edited highlights: (more…)