91.7 Ann Arbor/Detroit 104.1 Grand Rapids 91.3 Port Huron 89.7 Lansing 91.1 Flint
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Some words don't mean what you think they do


If some one gives you fulsome praise, is that good or bad?

University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan says that question came up during a family game of "Cranium" recently. 

These were the choices:

  1. Excessive or fake praise
  2. Disgusting or offensive
  3. Abundant or copious

That game was stacked, because Curzan happens to be on the usage panel for the American Heritage Dictionary, which tackled "fulsome" in 2012.
It turns out there's a lot of confusion about what "fulsome" means.

Historically, it meant that something was "copious or abundant," but over time that meaning died, and the meaning of "excessive flattery" came into use.

"Now we have a problem that this word is ambiguous, so the editors at American Heritage say it may be better not to use this word unless the context makes it clear that you mean the praise is excessive," Curzan says. 

Here's another word that trips people up: "Noisome."

"We want to make it about noise," Curzan says. "Noisome has historically meant 'to create disgust.' It's offensive. Sometimes it's about a noisome odor – it smells awful. But you can find examples in newspapers and magazines where people use the word to mean noisy."

So here's one way you might use the word: "My teenager's bedroom is especially noisome today."

Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.