Nadine Dorries, linguistic pioneer

Nadine Dorries, linguistic pioneer?
Nadine Dorries received a 'fulsome' apology from David Cameron

I’m not a particular fan of Nadine Dorries, but her treatment by David Cameron in the Commons the other day was unpleasant: he described her before a packed House as “frustrated” and burst out laughing. He has, now, apologised: The Daily Mail reports that he sent her a text message, reading: “Nadine i am genuinely desperately sorry about yestrday. It was an entirely innocent mistake. I wanted to give you a fair answer on abortion but got into a mess and cdnt get out of it… I hope we can put all this behind us but understand we have some way to go after ystrday. DC.”

To her eternal credit, Dorries accepted his apology. But she did so in an odd way: she said that “has since apologised fulsomely” for his remark. Fulsome, of course, means “offensively flattering or insincere“, rather like “unctuous”.

This isn’t a dig at Dorries, who is far from alone in misusing the term. “Fulsome” is one of those words which is [oops! Should have said “are” – linguistic howler ed] rarer to see employed correctly than incorrectly; it’s really only dull pedants like me who get wound up by it. But it is a shame, because it is a perfectly good word with a very specific meaning; in the sense in which Dorries used it, it merely means “full” or “abundant”, either of which would have done perfectly well. The English language is very slightly impoverished by this loss. (If, of course, Dorries knows perfectly well what “fulsome” means and was using it as a sly dig, then kudos, and apologies, to her.)

Obviously, English is a living language, and meanings change. Etymology is all very well and good, but the only final arbiter of what a word means is what people understand it to mean. We no longer think of “Knight” as meaning “servant” (like the German Knecht), but that is what it used to mean. “Lord” and “Lady” derive from the Old English for “provider of bread” and “kneader of bread” respectively. The meanings change, and while the way that they change is interesting, you can’t tell someone that they’re wrong to say a car “collided with a tree” because the Latin root implies two moving objects; we’re not speaking Latin any more.

But there are losses to meaning by which we can be saddened, and if “fulsome” goes the way of “bread-kneader”, I for one will be saddened by it, because there will be no word now which says “offensively flattering or insincere”, and instead there will be yet another which says “effusive” or “abundant”.

There are a few like this: I think it’s a slight shame that “random” is becoming a synonym for “unexpected”, “odd” or “arbitrary”, rather than “Having no specific pattern, purpose, or objective” or “unsystematic”, although that might just be me being a tweedy old curmudgeon.

One that genuinely annoys me is the use of “begging the question” to mean “raising the question”: as anyone who did philosophy at university will be able to tell you, it refers to the logical fallacy of assuming the point you are trying to make in your premise, a form of circular argument. “I know he is telling the truth because he never lies” would be an example.

But, nowadays, the meaning of “begging the question” as “raising the question” is accepted by most linguists, if a little grudgingly. The language changes and we must accept it. Those of us whose hackles are raised by text-speak or incomprehensible slang should bear in mind that we’re just showing our age: we don’t, after all, speak Chaucerian English ourselves.

All that said, if you’ve got any particularly egregious examples of the changing language, please do say so. Oh and, Muphry’s Law being what it is, it’s a nailed-on certainty that I’ve made at least one utterly humiliating linguistic howler in this piece. Apologies in advance to the discoverer.


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