Word of the Week! Fulsome

This word has bothered me for many years. It provides a good example of Edward Sapir’s theory of Linguistic Drift, and I warn writers to take care when using this intellectual-sounding adjective. It has drifted from a positive sense to a negative one and back to positive again!

Often I hear journalists on radio, or more likely corporate or governmental officials, describing the “fulsome praise” heaped upon this or that person. There’s a problem here; these speakers mean “generous” or “universal” when one older meaning of fulsome is, in fact, a little stinky.  If we add the verb “heaped” it all becomes, well, piled higher and deeper in its fulsomeness.

The word is English and it is very old. The OED Online cites uses from as early as the 14th Century, and this lovely example a century closer to us, “As a fulsome well Shedith his stream in to þe ryvere” can be updated to, “as a fulsome well sheds its stream into the river.”  Here the sense is copious, overflowing, positive.  And therein lies a problem with “fulsome,” as well as its closeness, phonetically, to the unabashedly bad “foul.” The OED notes that fulsome acquired a dubious reputation thanks to that kinship, though in recent years the positive aspect of fulsome  gained more usage.

A 19th Century example from the OED helps, “My complaint of the world..is 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.”

In this original sense, fulsome means “too much of a good thing.” It is one thing to be praised, another entirely to be fawned over by a sycophant. That sense of excess takes us to the OED’s other definitions. They include fleshy, obnoxious, overfed, lewd, bawdy, dirty, difficult to digest, filthy!  In my mind’s eye I immediately envisioned the engravings of William Hogarth, whose “Tavern Scene” from the series “The Rake’s Progress” appears above.  Try as I might, we are back to Spring Break Bacchanalia, after all!

An 1828 example from the OED is “the close, hot, fulsome smell of bad ventilation.” My 1953 edition of  Webster’s New Collegiate gives no positive definitions, emphasizing only the offensive nature of the term. My more recent American Heritage Dictionary, a volume that includes usage notes, warns readers about the double-edged meaning of our word of the week.

We have lost most derogatory senses of the word, along with the noun form of fulsome, but I remain uncomfortable when I hear about “fulsome praise,” perhaps the last holdout of a word that describes excess in all its forms. Again, I am reminded of Hogarth’s satirical drawings. The Rake’s Progress did not end well.

We have here not a question of grammar or even proper usage but rather of precise usage. So the next time you plan to honor someone who had received a reward, you might instead talk or write about “universal praise,” “widely praised,” “acclaimed,” or “greatly honored.” I, for one, would leave “fulsome” behind, unless you want to poke fun at someone being followed around by a platoon of yes-men.

Nominate a word by e-mailing me (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment below.

See all of our Words of the Week here.

Hogarth image courtesy of The Victorian Web.




Word of the Week! Pedagogy

Special thanks to Lisa Bayard, Manger of Tyler’s at UR, for this excellent pick. After the Bacchanalia ends, we must return to our studies.

I teach a course entitled “Composition Theory and Pedagogy,” and students rightly assume that the final word has something to do with the theory of teaching. For many years, poor student of Classical languages that I am, I mistakenly assumed that the “peda” in our word related to the Latin pedestere, to go around on foot. One often follows a mentor, like ducklings following mom. So that was that, as far as my defining the origins of “pedagogy.”

How wrong I was! While pedestere gives us the modern “pedestrian,” my thinking was rather pedestrian indeed, not have have checked a few good dictionaries.

During Spring Break, I am far from my printed dictionaries in Boatwright Library on campus, but I have the OED Online to follow me, like those ducklings, wherever I go. Their entry shows a history stretching back to Ancient Greece and, later in the Mediterranean world, Latin paedagogia. In English, by the 17th Century a “pedagogy” could mean not only the art of teaching but also the profession itself or a place where teaching gets done.

Today we generally refer to the system or theory of teaching when we use the word as a noun or adjective, as in “we practiced several pedagogical techniques for teaching the history of language.” I have heard teachers called “pedagogues” in older books; that term has faded from common usage.

Nominate a word by e-mailing me (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment below.

See all of our Words of the Week here.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

Word of the Week! Bacchanalia

With Spring Breaks blooming like daffodils across America, I decided that I would nominate a word myself.

In case my choice gives offense, I admit–and dare hope–that most students will do community service, visit family, or engage in healthy and safe activities during their Spring Breaks. In my experience, I was too poor to go anywhere except right home.

Such a low-key respite from schoolwork is not, however, the reputation of the annual student holiday. In fact, we have an ancient and sacred ancestor for today’s decidedly profane revelries, a term that managed to survive two millennia without much alteration: Bacchanalia. Bacchus, the Roman god of “wine, freedom, intoxication and ecstasy” (Wikipedia), survives as well; he seems a less dangerous re-branding of the Greek Dionysus. In those earlier rites, people got ripped limb from limb by the followers of  the god.

Bacchus’ festivals, purportedly still celebrated at every Spring Break hotspot, can be dangerous indeed.  This must account for the negative sense in which the term and its synonym “bacchanal” have been used during my lifetime. As recently as 2016, at my alma mater The University of Virginia, an article in The Cavalier Daily reported on “this year’s Block Party — an unsanctioned bacchanal which took place on Wertland Street last Saturday.”

I leave the nature of  the rites that constitute “excess,” up to readers’ discretion. More than one martini constitutes excess to me, these days, if not the drunken disasters so often synonymous with Bacchanalia. The OED Online traces that sense of the word, a secular version of the ancient partying, to the 17th Century. My other dictionaries also raise a glass in the same direction.

If you engage in singing about drinking, you will also be singing a “Bacchanal” or “Bacchanalia.” Those usages seem as lost to us now as the proverbial lost weekend.

So have a safe and sober Spring Break. Remember, as poet, printer, and mystic William Blake wrote, “the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.” But only if you make it that far.

Nominate a word by e-mailing me (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment below.

See all of our Words of the Week here.

Word of the Week! Equanimity

Special thanks to Rita Willett,  MD, Healthcare Studies and Department of Biology, for our word this week.  As with our word in the last post, “equanimity” is hard to say and even harder to spell, but it speaks volumes in print.

It provides just the right lexical item for a factious, even frightening time. The OED Online provides These definitions:

“The quality of having an even mind. . . .Fairness of judgement, impartiality, equity.”

Let’s try it in a medical sense, given our source: “Patients went beyond noting how the physician’s advice was medically sound; they emphasized her equanimity in treating the elderly with dignity.”

The term’s history reaches to the 17th Century, with public servant and private diarist Samuel Pepys using our word in much the same way we would today. If the term has fallen out of favor, I wonder if equanimity itself has waned? That virtue, as well as its signifier, deserve better.

Nominate a word by e-mailing me (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment below.

See all of our Words of the Week here.

Image of Samuel Pepys courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

Word of the Week! Practicable

Special thanks to Lee Chaharyn, of UR’s Collegiate Licensing & Special Projects. Lee picks a good word; I used it frequently when teaching business and professional writing at Indiana University. I’ve not done so recently, but the time has come to dust off this term. It contains several meanings that I’d never before encountered.

The OED Online provides a long history, one dating to the 16th Century, much like many of our prior words of the week.

In 1593, one might speak of “fiue (sic) hundred practicable cases” and except for the spelling of “five,” we would employ our word of the week in precisely the same manner. One thinks of practicable matters in terms of their being feasible. The OED also includes “effective,” “practical,” and a few other definitions.

If last week’s word slid off the tongue, this one decidedly does not. The strength of practicable arises when it appears in print.  Business writers often need synonyms, especially when these provide just the nuance for a sentence. Given the word’s somewhat circuitous etymology, “A borrowing from Latin; modelled (sic) on a French lexical item,” I would argue that by combining elements of “practical,” “practice,” and “able,” practicable counts as a portmanteau word capturing the sense of a thing that can be done or used without too much fuss.

Secondary meanings extend to routes that are the best to take when traveling, or to describe a prop in a play that can be used, as in this 2002 example from the OED about theater history, “A more finished version of the garden plan..can be seen in figure 2, for an unidentified production. The lazy line back becomes here a garden path stretching across what may be a practicable footbridge.”

That is not all; I never had heard of the noun form. In the specialized language of live theater, however, drapes that could be parted by actors are a practicable, but those painted on a wall are not. I hope some reader in that field will let us know if the term still has any currency.

Nominate a word by e-mailing me (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment below.

See all of our Words of the Week here.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

Word of the Week! Crepuscular

Dr. Ted Bunn, UR Department of Physics, nominated our word. I have always thought of the term in relation to the raccoons and possums, those banes of my chicken flock, or groundhogs, terrors of my garden. Without going into the gory details, let’s just say that as the light fails or grows, I have violently curtailed many of these creatures’ crepuscular activities. Such animals are usually only spotted at dawn or dusk, very rarely in broad daylight. The same goes for the red fox that helps me control their populations. It can best be observed at the verge of the forest at twilight.

Our word means associated with, or active in, twilight.  The Oxford English Dictionary Online has examples dating back as far as the 17th Century, and these add the sense of “indistinct” to the adjective in a way we would never say today, such as this beauty from 1860, “The crepuscular realm of the writer’s own reveries.”

For animals, the word makes sense; creatures that bet their lives upon not being spotted by predators going on two legs, four, or a set of wings need to do their foraging in dim light.

I like the word because of its “mouthfeel”: it creeps over the tongue like a critter in tall grass, slinking about for an unearned meal. As with similar words, we have a Latin ancestor, crepusculum. The verb and noun “creep,” however, come from much further north; there’s Anglo-Saxon ancestry there.  By accident both words could be used for similar situations, with an unknown animal creeping around on its crepuscular rounds, at least until the patient farmer or fox spots it.

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See all of our Words of the Week here.

Word of the Week! Eldritch

How can a word that appears to be about the supernatural or ancient describe a manikin in a roadster, floating around planet Earth? Wait for it…

Thanks to Writing Consultant Jennifer Cottle for this word, one she nominated while a student in my Eng. 215 class as we read the works of H.P. Lovecraft. The Providence fantasist used it a great deal, usually when describing old books of magic as “eldritch tomes” or things associated with the supernatural, as in “The Dunwich Horror,” where “the mountainous blasphemy lumbered upon its eldritch course.” Incidentally, if you think Lovecraft overused one of his favorite adjectives, it only appears once in that tale, as well as once in another personal favorite, “The Haunter of the Dark,” where I had been sure he used it on every other page.

While casting about for more examples, I recalled that the author referred to eldritch landscapes as well as objects or monsters. Over the years I had come to think of eldritch things as being ancient.

My Lovecraftian-looking Webster’s New Collegiate notes a Scottish origin and a definition of “eerie,” whereas my more recent American Heritage Dictionary notes “perhaps” a Middle English word “elriche” as an ancestor. That dictionary adds the notion of “unearthly” to our Word of the Week.

The Oxford English Dictionary Online does not solve the riddle of the term’s etymology, as it lists both “elriche” and “eldritch” in 16th century usages, both with the sense of things “not of this earth.”  If the two words are merely variants of the same term, “eldritch” carried the day. It also came to be used in describing strange places.

By the 19th Century, American realist William Dean Howells writes of a “Joy that had something eldritch and unearthly in it. Redundant? Howells apparently saw some distinction between something unearthly and the truly “eldritch,” and I find his association with joy original and appealing. What I do not see, in any usage, is the sense of something old, as when Lovecraft describes moldering books or mossy ruins of another time.

So like the term itself, there’s mystery in the exact meaning of “eldritch.” It’s a lovely word that trips off the tongue. I guess players of D&D and readers of fantasy novels have kept it alive for us.

We can also tip our space-helmets to Elon Musk. This week’s launch of the “Starman” manikin, seated behind the wheel of a cherry-red roadster, had me mesmerized. It looked literally unearthly, as it embarked on an endless trip around the sun. We can call this high-technology moment, eerie in its cosmic loneliness, an eldritch event.

Nominate a word by e-mailing me (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment below.

See all of our Words of the Week here.

Word of the Week! Hyperbole

Dr. Jerry Tarver, Professor of Rhetoric & Communication Studies, nominated our word, hyperbole. Dr. Tarver provides this interesting anecdote:

William F. Buckley, Jr. once gave a speech at UR in which he discussed the compulsion politicians have for overstatement. He called this tendency the “hyperbolic imperative” and unfortunately lost the attention of a large number of students. The word makes a useful distinction between outright lying and simple exaggeration. Hyperbole in practice is not all bad by any means; the best of writers make use of it. And it is also a word best pronounced by not looking at it.

That insight will prove useful to me, personally, whenever I hear too much news; then I slip into to thinking of hyperbole as much closer to an outright lie than what Buckley claimed.  So what is the origin of this term? Looking closer, I imagine a forgotten deity from the age of Pericles.

The OED Online supports the common usage as overstatement for rhetorical effect; so far, so good then. The etymology here is indeed Greek, meaning “excess.” As for early uses, the OED goes back to 1529 and no less a speaker and writer than Catholic martyr Thomas More, best known today for his Utopia and death at the hands of Henry VIII. More noted, in the spelling of his day, “a maner of speking which is among lerned men called yperbole, for the more vehement expressyng of a mater.” Seven decades later, Shakespeare spelled the word “hiperbole” but used it in the same way as More had done.

Modern spelling has settled down, but not so a drift in meaning to something very close to lying, thus making a falsehood out of what was once merely exaggeration. We enjoy hyperbole frequently in tall tales, in the hyperbolic commentary of sportscasters or, with a wink, in political speeches.

Nominate a word by e-mailing me (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment below.

See all of our Words of the Week here.

Word of the Week! Scruples

Here comes a word we often hear but rarely think about when we use it. When I think of “scruples,” I have always imagined someone like Dame Maggie Smith’s character from Downton Abbey, who had more scruples than teacups.

Griffin Trau nominated our word; he graduated in December, double majoring in Leadership and International Studies. Since then, he has enrolled in UR’s Master of Liberal Arts program and has one more year of eligibility on our Football team. According to Griffin, “This one is interesting for its root in Latin scrupus meaning ‘small pebble,’ or more figuratively ‘anxiety.’ The word is sometimes used in its historic sense in landscaping for the small pebbles used in driveways, paths, or buffer zones…you know, the ones that always end up in your shoes (that might be how the Romans came up with anxiety).”

In 2009, I walked the remains of a Roman road in Yorkshire, and it would make me anxious to think of little rocks in my sandals with miles to go to reach the next vicus or oppidum. In fact, my reading tells me that Roman roads were amazingly maintained. I’d doubt too many scruples vexed travelers.  Yet travelers today take their scruples with them, such as refusing to eat certain foreign foods or, in a gaff I long ago made in a pub, tipping where a local culture does not accept gratuities.

How we went from pebbles to moral or ethical sensibility is anyone’s guess. OED Online gives a first use as a noun, meaning a very small unit of measurement, from 1382.  That appears to have been lost, as well as its use as a verb. In that case The OED traces it to 1627, meaning to hesitate based on a moral or ethical principle. It also had a broader meaning to hesitate or doubt, usage that seems to have faded completely today. A fleeting adjectival usage appears as well, scrupling. Let’s not descend further into this as it would be, at best, a scrupling pursuit.

Proper usage today would be as follows, “She was a Countess from a well regarded English family, and she had many scruples about who should be admitted to her inner circle of associates.”Another native of England, Alfred Hitchcock, noted that “There is nothing to winning, really. That is, if you happen to be blessed with a keen eye, an agile mind, and no scruples whatsoever.”

A less morally fraught use would involve paying attention to detail, as with “After someone broke into his unlocked car, John became scrupulous about making sure he locked the car doors every night.”

Think of the two words we still associate with this Latinate antiquity: scrupulous and its shiftless sibling, unscrupulous. For the verb, I would scruple to use it in a modern sentence. That’s a pity. “Scruple” has a rich history and losing its verbal form robs the language of richness, since it adds a moral sense to our hesitation or anxiety.

That said, I am no scrupulous guardian of the past. Changes to our language as often enrich as impoverish. Yet I have scruples about many words we lose, for with them a scruple of nuance can vanish; it is the greatest thing I fear as our language changes.

See all of our Words of the Week here.

Word of the Week! Cyclopean

Welcome to a new feature at the Writing Center’s site. I (or a guest) will provide a new word regularly with some etymology as well as clarity about how to use it. When the word came not from my head but from our students, faculty, or staff, they will be recognized.

Our word of the week is “Cyclopean.” Thanks to student Haley Lawrence for providing it last semester in my Eng. 215 class, when we read the works of Howard Philips Lovecraft. Here’s a typically long-winded Lovecraftian example of the adjective:

“Behind the figure was a vague suggestion of a Cyclopean architectural background.”

The usage is from the story “The Call of Cthulhu,” and here it suggests buildings not only large, but inhumanly so, to the point of discomfort. So why the image of Ray Harryhausen’s  famous cyclops from the 1958 film Seventh Voyage of Sinbad?

A search through a few dictionaries shows a first recorded use in 1641 (OED Online). In that instance, humans shook in awe before “the Cyclopean power that which [sic] is the glory of Christ.”  The Christian savior qualifies as more than human, but the idea of a Cyclops, a one-eyed giant, seems lost here.  The OED also records a later usage for a telescope, certainly a one-eyed and powerful tool. That’s closer to that mythical creature who terrorized Odysseus until the wily Greek outwitted him.

The Cyclops of the epic poem was large, smart, and crafty in many ways. He was, most importantly, a rather domestic monster, keeping a herd of sheep and living in a large cave. I suppose the myth of the race of Cyclops led to all sorts of explanations for natural or ancient stonework as well as metaphors for contemporary architecture.

In Lovecraft’s prose, the term applies to large masonry of a sort that no human of his age might erect: blocks of Egyptian pyramids, The Giant’s Causeway in Ireland, and so forth.  Do not simply substitute “cyclopean” for “huge”: something must be huge to the point of inspiring awe. I’d call The Empire State Building or Hoover Dam Cyclopean; a McMansion or highway bridge, not so much. Imagine, 2,000 years hence, an archeologist writing “old New York staggers the explorer with the Cyclopean ruins of Midtown.”

My first print dictionary, a nearly antique Webster’s New Collegiate, adds another twist beyond one-eyed or large:  encyclopedia. The older term “cyclopedia” is a synonym for our familiar printed or online repository of information. It too is vast; think of what we mean when we say that someone has “encyclopedic knowledge” of a subject. One rarely sees printed encyclopedias any more, but if you spot one, consider how much shelf-space it takes and think of those one-eyed, inhuman giants of mythology.

Nominate a word by e-mailing me (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment here.