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Tuesday, November 1, 2011

An History of the Fulsome Use of "Plethora"

Grammar & UsageWarning: this is a post about my three current linguistic pet peeves.  

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.

[JT]

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Comments

"a myriad of"

Posted by: Matt | Nov 2, 2011 7:04:45 AM

Yes, that mistake is also common. It's gone off my radar because I actually think we are winning the fight against "a myriad of." I am now seeing it used correctly more often than I did ten years ago.

Posted by: Jeremy Telman | Nov 2, 2011 7:27:46 AM

I have this argument with my brother over "decimated." He thinks it means to reduce by one-tenth. True, originally. But since everyone today uses it as "nearly destroyed," that IS what it means.

No mention of plethora should ignore the movie "The Three Amigos." Ignorance of the word is almost worthy of getting shot over, apparently.

At least when history is in an adjective form, I prefer AN so that the listener does not think I am trying to say ahistorical.

Posted by: Alan Childress | Nov 2, 2011 1:58:56 PM

I'm certainly with you on "decimated." You must have had to sleep with one eye open growing up, because your brother reminds me of Procrustes.

I have not seen "The Three Amigos," but if it involves capital punishment for misuse of "plethora," I'm going to have to move it into my mental category for "sophisticated comedies."

Sorry, I don't think you need to make any exceptions on the indefinite article before any form of "history." The adjectives "historical" or "historic" are always going to be followed by a noun, so your listeners just need to have more patience than a hungry feline. The likelihood of confusion seems small to me. And would you distinguish between what you do in writing and what you say? The confusion could not occur if you use "a" in print.

Posted by: Jeremy Telman | Nov 2, 2011 2:44:27 PM

"Begs the question" when you mean "raises the question."

Posted by: Alan White | Nov 3, 2011 8:24:27 AM

Yes, that's another one. I know that "beg the question" is a phrase that philosophers use with precision, and since I am not a philosopher, I have generally taken Mark Liberman's advice and avoided the phrase altogether: http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=2290

Posted by: Jeremy Telman | Nov 3, 2011 8:36:04 AM

Just a minor tweak on the "history"/"historic" distinction: You note that the "h" in "history" is vocalized and thus calls for "a" as the preceding article. In reality, the "h" is vocalized in both words; the difference is that in "history," the first syllable is stressed, and in "historic," "historical," etc., it is not; the stress there is on the second syllable.

The tradition for some time has been to use "an" in front of these unstressed syllables starting with "h"--probably because saying "uh historic" is a bit tricky and sounds weird, whereas "uh history" is no problem. A person who wants to put "an" in front of history is doing what's called hyper-correction, in this case to match the traditional pattern of "an historic..."

Posted by: Philip Gaines | Nov 3, 2011 9:00:58 AM

Very interesting, especially in light of Alan's earlier comment! I thought of suggesting that one could avoid the ambiguity that concerns Alan by saying "uh historic" or "uh historical," but as Philip puts it (using the appropriate technical language), that sounds weird. To me, "an historic" or "an historical" sounds worse than weird, it sounds wrong, but we are unlikely to find common ground on that point.

Still, I have the same question for Philip as I had for Alan: can we agree that, even if one might say "an historic," one still should write "a historic"?

Posted by: Jeremy Telman | Nov 3, 2011 9:40:44 AM

Given the context, I believe I'm permitted to note that you've spelled "egregious" incorrectly.

Posted by: bcamarda | Nov 3, 2011 6:18:02 PM

Given the context, it was inevitable that I would commit (at the very least) a typo in this post. Thanks for pointing out the error, which has been corrected.

Posted by: Jeremy Telman | Nov 4, 2011 2:54:32 AM

Jeremy: With "an historic" in written form, we have an interesting case of an author attempting to align spelling with sound--hyper-correction again, but more subtle this time, because there is precedent for the sound in a way that there isn't for "an history." Writing "a historic," though, creates a different problem, this time for the reader, whose tendency is to hear, while he/she is reading, "uh historic," which is a struggle. So, for the writer, it's damned if you do/don't.

One last note: Why does "uh hilarious book" sound better that "uh historic book"? Pardon the technicality, but with the latter, the "s" is voiceless (i.e., doesn't vibrate in the voice box), and the preceding vowel tends to be assimilated to that voicelessness, making the move from voiced "uh" to voiceless "his-" a pronunciation challenge. With "hilarious," no problem: "l" is voiced.

Right and wrong in these matters is a complicated calculation!

Phil

P.S. I picked this stuff up on my way toward becoming a linguistics professor...

Posted by: Philip Gaines | Nov 4, 2011 7:19:32 AM

Philip, the argument turns in the end on whether one finds "uh history" problematic, which I don't, and also on one finding the alternative "a history" problematic (as does Alan), but that doesn't bother me either -- or at least both of them bother me significantly less than sometimes using "an" before vocalized "h's" and sometimes not ("an historical" versus "a hilarious") for reasons that only a linguistics professor can explain.

Still, thanks for your thoughtful contributions to the blog.
Jeremy

Posted by: Jeremy Telman | Nov 5, 2011 1:42:58 PM

You'll never see anything but "a history" and "a historic" coming out of the end of MY pen!

Posted by: Philip Gaines | Nov 5, 2011 2:06:22 PM

Jerry:

Are you sure that you want to open up a thread on pet peeves? You might get inundated.

Mine is "there's." Last I heard, this was a contraction for "there is" but a huge number of folks want to use it in the plural, especially journalists and announcers. "There's a lot of people in the yard." There's at least 20 ways to do this." You get the idea. It does not even sound right, unlike the three that you mentioned.

Speaking of those three, what do fulsome and plethora have in common? They both have negative definitions, but most people consider them to be positive. In other words, not only are people using them wrongly, but they are frequently using them to mean the opposite of what they say.

Thanks for the food for thought.

Posted by: Bob Leonard | Nov 8, 2011 10:19:45 AM

I don't think I have any problems with a pet peeve thread.

In fact, I've got a new one: people who call me "Jerry."

Posted by: Jeremy Telman | Nov 9, 2011 10:34:11 AM

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