Tuesday, December 28, 2021

A Small Gripe, Reiterated

I mentioned a misusage back in 2013 in one of my Flips of the Tongue posts, and I've heard or read it a number of times since then. My impression is that it's becoming more common, though I hope not. 

Here's a recent example from a letter to the editor in the Star Tribune

"The persistent pit in my stomach tells me that we have made a terrible mistake."

As Washington State University Professor Paul Brians puts it in this list of errors, compiled in his book  Common Errors in English Usage:

Just as you can love someone from the bottom of your heart, you can also experience a sensation of dread in the pit (bottom) of your stomach. I don’t know whether people who mangle this common expression into “pit in my stomach” envision an ulcer, an irritating peach pit they’ve swallowed or are thinking of the pyloric sphincter; but they’ve got it wrong.

This confusion of "pit of ___ stomach" with "pit in ___ stomach" didn't make it into Brian Garner's Modern American Usage (third edition, 2009), however. Maybe someone with a copy of his fourth edition can tell me if it's in there.

Chris Hayes, I have noted a few times over the years, is one of the misusers of this phrase. Much as I dislike it, that doesn't bother me as much as Rachel Maddow's use (misuse) of "fulsome," which she thinks is interchangeable with "lavish," when describing praise. I guess because it sounds like "full." 

Garner labels uses like Maddow's as Stage 4, meaning it is "virtually universal but is opposed on cogent grounds by a few linguistic stalwarts..." His shorthand for Stage 4 is "Ubiquitous but..."

"Fulsome" is such a great word. I am sorry to see it subside into vague positivity.


Update: Checking the etymology of "fulsome" is an eye-opener. It's derived from the Middle English words for "full" and "some," just as it sounds, and as etymonline puts it, was "Perhaps a case of ironic understatement." The listing goes on:

Sense extended to "plump, well-fed" (mid-14c.), then "arousing disgust" (similar to the feeling of having over-eaten), late 14c. Via the sense of "causing nausea" it came to be used of language, "offensive to taste or good manners" (early 15c.); especially "excessively flattering" (1660s). Since the 1960s, however, it commonly has been used in its original, favorable sense, especially in fulsome praise.

This use since the 1960s reinforces Garner's Stage 4 assessment. I don't remember hearing it until recently, personally, which is probably why I find it so hard on my ear.

1 comment:

Michael Leddy said...

It’s not in the 4th either. Google’s Ngram Viewer shows it rising steadily, but “pit of my stomach” is about 6.6 times as common. There’s something especially odd about a “persistent” pit. A persistent knot, impossible to untie — that makes more sense.

“Pit of my stomach” was at an all-time high in 2018, the most recent year for Ngram results in American English. I wonder if you-know-who had something to do with that.