Tuesday, November 1, 2011
I admit that the link to contracts law is attenuated, but these are [mis]uses that I come across in scholarship quite frequently, and I am alarmed that if I don't speak up, it will be too late and these abominations will come to be the standard usage.
So, let's start with the least egregious: "an history." Can you even say it aloud in a sentence without contortions? Because the "h" in history is vocalized, the proper form of the preceding indefinite article is "a," not "an." To use "an" in this context is IMHO, doubly pretentious. I suspect that the usage is a holdover from the times when English aristocrats, trying to get in good with their new French overlords, dropped their "h's." This affectation then trickled down like stock options don't, and today in England, as here, dropping one's "h's" is not considered standard. Still, for some reason, we still pretend that we are affecting a French pronounciation of the words "history" and "historic" when in fact we are not. There is therefore absolutely no reason to use "an" before either of those words. This usage is least egregious because it comes up relatively infrequently, but it still drives me crazy because it almost always occurs in texts that are otherwise learned (although sportscasters love to lable every play or incident "an historic occasion"). Why would smart people do such a thing?!?
Alright, on to "fulsome." Fulsome is now likely more often used improperly than properly. It sounds like it means "complete" or "generous" or "ample." It doesn't. It means excessive. Fulsome praise is insincere praise -- praise so over the top as to flip over into its opposite. "Noisome" is similar. It sounds like it means "noisy," but it really means "smelly." Best just to stay away from "some" words.
And finally, the usage that bugs me the most because of its ubiquity is "plethora." Again, I blame sports commentators. They have fallen in love with the misuse of this word and it has infected the literate public. Plethora does not mean "a lot." We have quite a few words that mean "a lot," and to use "plethora" when you mean "a lot" is confusing because "plethora" really means "an unhealthy excess;" not "a lot" but "too many." The word derives from the theory of the bodily humors. Excess of one humor was believed to cause symptoms. A plethora is a pathology.
I am moved to write about this (again) because I did something recently that I never do -- I told a colleague that he had misused the word. I did this because I had heard him do it on two occasions and because I respect him and think he has picked up on a misuse of the word and mistaken the misuse for the correct usage. I would like to think that if I were misusing a word and someone corrected me (as my mother used to do before I fled her jurisdiction), I would eventually get over my embarrassment and be grateful to the person who prevented me (hopefully in private) from compounding the embarrassment through reiteration.
Our conversation revealed that my colleague seemed to be familiar only with the improper usage of "plethora." Still, he argued in populist mode, if the wrong usage is the common usage, it becomes the correct usage. He proposed that we test our theories of the word's meaning by checking how it is used on Westlaw. Well, I know what outcome such a search would produce, but I'm not willing to bow to popular usage in this instance because popular usage is confusing to those of us who know what the word means (and by the way, dictionaries still provide the traditional definition of the term). When a judge writes that the defendant provided a "plethora of arguments" in defense of her conduct, I honestly don't know whether the court is saying that the defendant had many serious arguments that the court needs to a address or that the defendant provided so many lame excuses for her conduct that none of them deserves serious attention. The latter meaning illustrates the power of the word "plethora" properly deployed, and it is indeed a useful word if its meaning is not horribly diluted through misuse.
I concede that one should generally bow to popular usage. I cringe inwardly whenever I hear or see the word "normalcy" (but ethe slippery slope into normalicy), but I cannot honestly claim that the usage is wrong. Still, the Westlaw methodology is highly suspect in my view. When I was a clerk, I was asked to review a draft opinion from one of the other judges on our court. My judge had no substantive differences with the opinion, so she wanted to sign off on it, but for some reason, the other judge (or his clerk) had made reference to some aspect of the case being "much adieu about nothing." After checking with my judge about protocol, I called the clerk responsible for the opinion and told him that the phrase seemed to reference one of Shakespeare's plays entitled "Much Ado about Nothing." Some time later, I received an e-mail from the other clerk informing me that he had decided to make the change I had requested, not because of Shakespeare, but because a Westlaw search indicated that my preferred spelling was the more popular one. I suppose one might say that there are a plethora of reasons for spelling the word in question "ado," but I would say that there is only one reason that matters.