Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

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.

5 Responses to “Don’t Change a Thing. And if You Do, Don’t Change it Back.”

  1. ACW said

    The author’s stance can be rescued from inconsistency. I read him as saying:

    “This word used to have meaning A. But then, for centuries, and including the period of history which produced almost everything I have ever read, it had meaning B. So meaning B is what I’m used to, and it’s disconcerting to have it change to meaning C, since meaning B and meaning C are so dissimilar. The fact that meaning A and meaning C are identical is a mere scholarly curiosity, which I threw in to show what a scholar I am.”

  2. Richard Hershberger said

    Like ACW, I think Kilpatrick really just wants to fix the language (in the old sense of ‘fix’ meaning ‘stop from changing’). But it is also true that he undercuts his case for the sake of showing off: his discussion of the 13th century use not only raises questions about when a change is good or bad, but also makes one wonder if the older sense of ‘fulsome’ every really went away. Were Kilpatrick a smarter person he wouldn’t have brought this into evidence.

    Garner, on the other hand, is simply being an ass. While he doesn’t come out and say it, there is a clear hint that he considers ‘aficionados’ and ‘linguistic liberals’ to be mutually exclusive. Right back at you, Bryan!

  3. At least in terms of American political lingo, you’re not a “language liberal”, you’re a “language libertarian”, right?

  4. […] Once again, I find myself wondering exactly what James J. Kilpatrick is thinking. He begins this week’s column with: This was a headline in USA Today on April 28: “Mass Transit Not an Option for All Drivers.” […]

  5. Leon Barnes said

    When the other four folks who criticized Mr. Kilpatrick write as many syndicated newspaper columns and as many scholarly books on the writer’s art as has Mr. Kilpatrick, then their criticism shall merit consideration. Otherwise, they are microscopic mosquitoes buzzing around the ear of a giant of literacy.

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