Tuesday, February 07, 2017

False words/false meanings

by Rick Blechta

Aline’s post from yesterday may have opened a can of worms — at least it has with me.

One of my greatest joys in writing (in English) is the chance to play with language. We ink-stained wretches can easily become obsessed with finding just the correct word to use that will bring a delicious nuance of meaning to our scribblings. In short, English has a tremendously expressive vocabulary, it’s a shame not to make use of it, right?

So I am completely onboard with Aline’s feelings that too often words and phrases are misused — sometimes to the point where those meanings can change due to ill-usage. Aline pointed out some examples. Here’s my favourite bugbear at the moment: fulsome.

Fulsome used to mean (in Middle English) that something was abundant to the point of arousing disgust (to paraphrase). My memory of it has to do with odors, as in something smelling truly disgusting (“a fulsome reek”). So basically, fulsome was not what you would call a “positive” word.

More recently, though, fulsome is being used to mean “copious or abundant” (as in “the press secretary was fulsome in his praise of the president’s political agenda”). Strictly speaking that’s an incorrect usage. To my mind, it somehow diminishes the word to use it in a positive — not to mention incorrect — way. To quote The American Heritage Dictionary, “Thus it may be best to avoid fulsome except where the context unambiguously conveys the idea that the praise in question is excessive or fawning.”

There are any number of other interesting examples of changes in usage of words over time. Indulge yourself and read these articles: “11 Words With Meanings That Have Changed Drastically Over Time” and “25 Words Whose Meanings Have Changed Drastically Over Time” to start with.

To finish off, I made several changes in my word choice to construct the sentences above. In the second paragraph, the second sentence contained right instead of correct. Both words would have worked, but I felt correct was a bit more “graceful” than going with right and is certainly more expressive of the way I feel.

And that is a major reason I enjoy writing and, especially, revising what I write.

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