November 16, 2004

Rumsfeld overnegates Powell, Powell uses "fulsome" correctly

As the cabinet is reconfigured for George Bush's second term, the Secretary of Defense (who is staying) and the Secretary of State (who is not) have each made an interestingly ambiguous remark, featured prominently in stories about the changes.

On Nov. 16, the American Armed Forces Information Service released an article by Donna Miles, under the headline "Rumsfeld Praises Powell, Expects No Major Policy Shifts", whose lede runs as follows:

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said today he has "thoroughly enjoyed" working with Secretary of State Colin Powell and "will miss not working closely with him" after Powell steps down from his post. [emphasis added]

As we've frequently documented, overnegations are easy to fail to miss. And this one -- "miss not VERBing ..." in the meaning "feel the lack or loss of VERBing ..." rather than "feel the lack or loss of not VERBing" -- has become a widespread (if not universally accepted) idiom. I checked 10 instances at random from the first 150 produced by a Google search for "miss not", and found that 8 of them were overnegations:

I will miss not being able to communicate with you, and I will miss not being Editor of The American Journal of Sports Medicine.
Well, again. it's not my favorite track, but I'll miss not being there for the fans. ... I'll miss not being there for sure.
I guess I miss not getting to throw my two cents in, so can we get some opinionated people to start writing again ??
And lots of times i find i miss not having them around to remenis about some of the fun times and such. but that's just how it is. .
So... I know you'll miss not having me around to post stories that you don't want to read and argue with you... but figured I'd let you know.
My dear Yoshi, I will miss not having you run up to me with your nose wiggling in the air.
But for now, let's just say that there are some things that I had, and remember, and miss not having now.
She will miss not having access to radio and TV during the week of RTÉ Charity 252.

versus 2 that were not:

As a native hillbilly, I miss it all too much! I miss not getting lost in the crowd. I miss not getting looked at as a dollar sign.
They never came home, but I didn't have to deal with the things that they did. I miss not caring at all. I miss not worrying.

So based on this linguistic a priori, there's roughly an 80% chance that Rumsfeld meant that he'll feel the lack or loss of working closely with Powell, and a 20% chance that he'll feel the lack or loss of not doing so. Unless, of course, he was intentionally communicating a mixed state.

According to the Nov. 15 NYT article on Colin Powell's resignation as U.S. Secretary of State (written by David Stout and Mark J. Prendergast)

"In recent weeks and months, President Bush and I have talked about foreign policy and we've talked about what to do at the end of the first term," Mr. Powell said. "After we had had a chance to have good and fulsome discussions on it, we came to mutual agreement that it would be appropriate for me to leave at this time."

Like many others, I was taken severely to task in secondary school for using fulsome to mean "copious or abundant" instead of "offensive to good taste", but apparently my teachers were wrong on the etymological facts. [Update: as is the all-too-predictable Language Log straight man William Safire, who upbraids Powell for straying from "the grammatical strait and narrow" on this point. This ain't grammar, Bill, it's lexicography; and you could look it up. Vide infra] So says the American Heritage Dictionary, and the OED agrees, giving the first sense as "Characterized by abundance, possessing or affording copious supply; abundant, plentiful, full", with citations back to 1250:

c1250 Gen. & Ex. 2153 Ðe .vii. fulsum ʒeres faren.
a1412 LYDG. Lyfe our Ladye (Caxton) Av, For alwey God gaf hyr to her presence So fulsom lyght of heuenly influence.

and continuing through more recent times (though with some self-consciousness):

1868 HELPS Realmah II. xi. 80 My complaint of the this -- that there is too much of everything..and so I could go on enumerating..all the things which are too full in this fulsome world. I use fulsome in the original sense.

Still, those who have been indocrinated by the common prescriptive view may briefly wonder whether Powell might have meant to suggest that his discussions were fulsome in OED sense 3b "Having a sickly or sickening taste; tending to cause nausea", or 3c "Cloying, satiating, wearisome from excess or repetition", or sense 5 "Offensive to the senses generally...", or sense 6 "Offensive to normal tastes or sensibilities; exciting aversion or repugnance; disgusting, repulsive, odious.", or sense 7 "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". I won't even mention sense 6b, "Morally foul, filthy, obscene", because I'm confident that Secretary Powell meant only that his discussions with President Bush were "copious and abundant" (though see this article by Christopher Hitchens for some evidence of a "sense of dankness and exhaustion" that might suggest the other interpretations to some people).

Both Rumsfeld and Powell chose words that will engender some amused speculation about alternative, subversive interpretations of their sentiments. These alternatives are eminently deniable. The intended primary meanings, though in both cases slightly non-standard, are so common that the alternatives don't even need to be denied explicitly. But another choice of words would have denied us our little joke -- and theirs?

[Rumsfeld quote tip from Nick Montfort.]

[Note: I originally misclassified one of the 10 "miss not" samples, as an alert reader (Skevos Mavros) pointed out to me. I don't have any real excuse -- I just blew it -- but the fact that this is so easy to do when you're in a rush helps to make the point that the "miss not VERBing" == "miss VERBing" equivalence has become really idiomatic.]


Posted by Mark Liberman at November 16, 2004 06:55 AM