words and their (sometimes elusive) meanings

Most people who love words and the English language are familiar with the book Alice in Wonderland and the character Humpty Dumpty. They are well acquainted with Humpty’s arrogant perspective on words:

quote“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”

Most of us are not so presumptuous, but words can be tricky sometimes. I often think of the 2017 column about the word “fulsome” by Ben Yagoda in the Lingua Franca blog. Yagoda writes that the word at one time meant “excessive flattery,” but has now taken on a positive connotation.

Indeed, the Merriam-Webster Unabridged online dictionary lists the first meaning as “very full and abundant,” providing “copious” as a synonym. The second meaning is “notably or appealingly full or rounded in shape.” Only further down the list do the more negative meanings appear.

Humpty DumptyThe more conservative online American Heritage Dictionary, on the other hand, lists the first meaning as, “excessively flattering or insincerely earnest,” offering “unctuous” as a synonym. The second meaning is “disgusting or offensive.”


The the approach of the online Oxford Living Dictionaries is to take the middle road, offering “complimentary or flattering to an excessive degree” as the first meaning and “of large size or quantity; generous or abundant” for the second definition.

All three dictionaries include usage notes which discuss the changing and ambiguous nature of the word.

My approach in such circumstances: avoid the word altogether. I will find a different word that conveys more precisely what I am trying to express.


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