January 31, 2007

The Queen's English

Over at the blog of the Norman Lear Center, Leo Braudy makes a nice observation about the dialogue in The Queen, where Queen Elizabeth uses fulsome to describe praise that is merely abundant, rather than being oleaginous or smarmy. True, that usage is common enough among educated speakers, but was it a deliberate choice to have the Queen use the word that way, and if so, what might it signify?

As Braudy puts it:

. . . towards the end [of the movie] I was knocked right out of the suspension of disbelief by an odd ambiguity in the writing. Unfortunately enough it comes out of the mouth of the Queen herself. As I remember, it occurs when the Tony Blair character comes in to see Elizabeth II after she has finally made her speech about the death of Diana. He praises her for the speech and she replies (a paraphrase): "Some of your associates were not so fulsome." There it is: the hypercorrecting belief that "fulsome" is a fancy way of saying "copious" or "abundant" when its primary meaning is actually "gross, offensive." Certainly this is a slippage of meaning that is in pretty common usage, but in the mouth of the Queen? Is it the mistake of Peter Morgan the scriptwriter? Is it a sly bit of characterization in which the lapse in a precise use of the English language parallels the other problems of the royal family? Or is the Queen subtly attacking Blair's previous speech in a way he is not able to appreciate because of his own faulty background?

My guess is that the line in the movie was almost certainly inadvertent. For one thing, the use of fulsome to mean "gross" or "smarmy" is relatively rare nowadays, even in the reputable media. Merriam Webster's Dictionary of English Usage traces the non-pejorative uses of the word to apply to praise back to the 1940's, citing examples from the New York Times and Washington Post, among others. And a look at the 50 most recent non-duplicate occurrences of the word in Nexis major papers turns up only four that clearly carry a pejorative meaning:

While caterers busied themselves filling bowls with cheese doodles and onion dip for the numerous receptions in the hallways outside the massive chamber doors, a string of speakers doodled its way through a series of fulsome platitudes about cooperation and civility. Steve Wiegand, Sacramento Bee, December 7, 2006

Most of the world knows the fulsome, pompadour-bearing developer Donald Trump as the king of New York property. South China Morning Post, Jan. 7, 2007

[E. B.] White disliked many things, but particularly that which degraded human intelligence. So he was no fan of advertising, overly fulsome service at hotels, gathering in groups, New York City taxi cabs, public speaking, noise, printed gossip and especially improper grammar. John Freeman, Denver Post, Dec. 24, 2006.

Is it really necessary to introduce each dance with fulsome prose, not to speak of endless encomiums to the company's own history and board, however generous? John Rockwell, New York Times, Dec. 1, 2006

Of the remainder, the majority use the word to describe praise that is enthusiastic or abundant:

Critical reaction to the ensemble's superb recording of Handel's Messiah. . . has been unanimous and fulsome. Kenneth Watson, The Scotsman, Jan. 24, 2007.

Ashton had not intended to take the plunge by starting Wilkinson, even though he was fulsome about the fly-half's performance in training last week which was described as "staggering''. Mick Cleary, Daily Telegraph, Jan. 30, 2007

Others use the word in more general ways, sometimes to mean simply "full" or "copious" (actually the earliest use of the word recorded in the OED, but marked there as obsolete since the 16th century), and on at least one occasion, to describe a full-cut shirt:

The Vancouver Sun, clearly concerned about reader revulsion, has taken the unusual step of providing a stripped-down account of the trial on Page 2 daily, an alternative to its more fulsome reportage elsewhere in the paper. Toronto Star, Jan. 27, 2007

Some of the new Reits have enjoyed fulsome rises in their share prices as investors size up the potential for higher dividend pay-outs. Jim Pickard, Financial Times, Jan. 3, 2007

You'll need a robust and fulsome shirt with a David Davies-style collar - ie, tough, resilient and not likely to get all sulky if you suddenly decide to wear an old school tie. Dylan Jones, Daily Telegraph Jan. 5, 2007

So it wouldn't be at all surprising if Peter Morgan was unaware that there was any problem in using fulsome in a non-pejorative way, particularly since he doesn't have a particularly "literary" background (his degree was in fine arts, not English). Nor for that matter is there any reason to suppose that Elizabeth would have qualms about using it that way herself. People may call it the Queen's English, but in language, as in politics, the monarch reigns but doesn't rule.

But in that case, is there any justification for continuing to maintain that the non-pejorative uses of the word are erroneous, or that the change in meaning should be described as a "slippage" rather than simply as a shift? When the tide of educated usage is running 90 percent in favor of the non-pejorative meaning, isn't it time to throw in the towel? Or might it be more prudent simply to throw the word over the side in all its uses?

Yet even some assiduously descriptivist authorities have their reservations about the new use of fulsome. WDEU urges caution in using the word non-pejoratively, given the likelihood of unfortunate misinterpretation: "If you are tempted to use fulsome, remember that it is quite likely to be misunderstood by both the innocent reader and the gimlet-eyed purist unless your context makes the intended meaning abundantly clear." And in the other camp, William Safire suggests that the word is best avoided in both its meanings:

This commentator says: If you mean full, say full, or if you want to put your thumb on the upscale, copious. But if you mean gross, say gross or yucky, or try an expletive like feh!.. . . Indeed, cross fulsome off your list entirely. Phooey on ambiguity.

Of course fulsome isn't the only word that raises this sort of problem. I do a double-take when I see a reference on ESPN to "the enormity of Joe Dimaggio's impact on the game" -- that's something I wouldn't even say about George Steinbrenner. And when you use enormity in its "monstrousness" sense, you run the risk that a very large portion of your readers will miss the point. (In Google News stories, the word is used between 80 and 90 percent of the time to refer simply to great size.) When a story says, say, "the enormity of America's Twin Tower attacks is too fresh in the US psyche to explore," it's hard to know for certain what the writer meant to convey -- either meaning would make sense in the context. Should we say phooey on ambiguity with this one, too, substituting hugeness or monstrousness as circumstances require?

There are really two questions that writers have to resolve here. The easier one is whether to permit themselves to use these words in their non-pejorative senses. My guess is that most writers who are aware of the older (current) senses of fulsome and enormity tend not to use the words to mean simply "abundant" and "hugeness" respectively. For one thing, the ambiguities here are much more likely to lead to ironic or comical misreadings than the ambiguities created by other malaprops, like using fortuitous to mean "fortunate." And then too, people tend to attach themselves to these scraps of prescriptive lore, particularly when they're a bit recondite. Writers who are familiar with the prescriptive canons are more likely to flout the rules against splitting an infinitive or ending a sentence with a preposition than to deliberately use masterful in place of masterly.

The other question is a bit more difficult: should writers who know the "correct" meaning of a word like fulsome allow themselves to use it in that sense, pace Safire's objections? True, there's a good chance the usage will be misinterpreted by many readers. But the misreadings here are generally less pernicious than when the words are intended in a non-pejorative way. When you describe the mayor's remarks as fulsome with the intention of conveying that they were smarmy or excessive, and a reader takes you to mean simply that the remarks were effusive, the misreading isn't embarrasing or ironic in the way it would be if the intended and inferred meanings were reversed. And similarly when you refer to the enormity of the adminstration's Iraq untertaking and someone assumes you mean simply that it was very big -- that's less embarrassing than if you only mean it was big and somebody takes you to be saying it was monstrous.

Then too, fulsome is clearly a word that belongs to a literate register. Consider the ratios of anxious to fulsome in various publications:

New York Review of Books: 14 to 1

National Review: 15 to 1

Nexis Major Papers: 30 to 1

People: 41 to 1

USA Today: 131 to 1

The fact is that people who use fulsome in the popular media are generally reaching for a fine or literary word. (That isn't true of enormity.) It isn't quite accurate to describe the non-pejorative use of fulsome as a "hypercorrection," as Braudy does, nor is it really a folk etymology (the word is in fact ultimately derived from full, though possibly colored by foul). When it appears in the popular media, it might better be described as a "genteelism," the term H. W. Fowler used in Modern English Usage to describe the replacement of except by save, dentifrice by toothpowder, and anent for about. In those circumstances the critics who insist that the word be used properly are less liable to charges of pedantry than those who decry the "incorrect" use of an everyday item like anxious or nauseous.

My ruling: you're within your rights to toss out the odd fulsome in a sufficiently highbrow context. But while it's fair to presume that your readers know the proper meaning of the word when you're writing for the New York Review (or, needless to say, for Language Log), you have no call to complain when they misinterpret it if you use it in People. Why did you want to go there in the first place?

Posted by Geoff Nunberg at January 31, 2007 07:41 PM