Don’t Change a Thing. And if You Do, Don’t Change it Back.
Posted by Neal on May 17, 2005
I had trouble following the train of thought in a newspaper column I read today. The author espoused one position, then undermined it, then followed with a non-sequitur. The column was James J. Kilpatrick’s “The Writer’s Art.”
Kilpatrick starts off with a complaint about some writers’ use of fulsome, giving the examples and then stating:
It is a good guess that the writers used fulsome to mean abundant or copious or unstinting. Merriam-Webster’s 11th Collegiate (2003) confirms that popular usage. Its editors say the primary definition of fulsome today is “generous in amount” or “full and well developed.”
Aargh! Until quite recently, fulsome had a very different primary meaning:
- American Heritage (1993): “offensively flattering or insincere; offensive to the taste or sensibilities.”
So far, so good. A typical prescriptive stance expressing frustration at change in a certain word’s meaning. But then he goes on to say:
We may be witnessing in fulsome an unusual process of linguistic reversion. When fulsome appeared early in the 13th century, it meant exactly what Merriam-Webster says its primary meaning is today–abundant, generous, lavish. There were no offensive implications of insincerity.
So what’s the problem? Why was the change from meaning A to meaning B all right, while the change from meaning B back to meaning A is to be condemned? Is it that the change from A to B was bad enough, and careless writers are only compounding the evil by changing it again? Or is it that it’s especially bad to allow a word to lose its negative connotations once it has them? Kilpatrick never says.
Instead, he shifts the topic to Bryan Garner, author of Modern American Usage:
Garner identifies two contentious schools. The first comprises language aficionados and purists who insist upon traditional use. The other comprises linguistic liberals and those who don’t concern themselves much with language. Garner adds morosely: “As time goes by, Group One dwindles; meanwhile, Group Two swells.”
OK, nevermind the question of fulsome; my complaint now is about this Garner’s complete omission of a third group–the one that contains language aficionados who are also linguistic liberals (taking linguistic liberal to mean “not a purist who insists on traditional use”). The implication is that such a group could no more exist than a group comprising language purists and people who don’t care about language very much. Oh, wait a minute–Kilpatrick says Garner identifies two contentious schools. My group must have been left out because it’s not contentious enough.