The Fulsome Principle

”If it be aught to the old tune, my lord,
It is as fat and fulsome to mine ear
As howling after music.”
(Shakespeare, The Twelfth Night)

There are problematic words that can mean opposite things, I presume either because two once different expressions meandered in the space of meaning until they were nigh indistinguishable, or because something that already had a literal meaning went and became ironic. We can think of our favourites, like a particular Swedish expression that either means that you will get paid or not, or ”fulsome”. Is ”fulsome praise” a good thing (Merriam Webster Usage Note)?

Better avoid the ambiguity. I think this is a fitting name for an observation about language use.

The Fulsome Principle: smart people will gladly ridicule others for breaking supposed rules that are in fact poorly justified.

That is, if we take any strong position about what ”fulsome” means that doesn’t acknowledge the ambiguity, we are following a rule that is poorly justified. If we make fun of anyone for getting the rule wrong, condemning them for as misusing and degrading the English language, we are embarrassingly wrong. We are also in the company of many other smart people who snicker before checking the dictionary. It could also be called the Strunk & White principle.

This is related to:

The Them Principle: If you think something sounds like a novel misuse and degradation of language, chances are it’s in Shakespeare.

This has everything to do with language use in science. How many times have you heard geneticists or evolutionary biologists haranguing some outsider to their field, science writer or student for misusing ”gene”, ”fitness”, ”adaptation” or similar? I would suspect: Many. How many times was the usage, in fact, in line with how the word is used in an adjacent sub-subfield? I would suspect: Also, many.

In ”A stylistic note” at the beginning of his book The Limits of Kindness (Hare 2013), philosopher Caspar Hare writes:

I suspect that quite often, when professional philosophers use specialized terms, they have subtly different senses of those terms in mind.

One example, involving not-so-subtly-different senses of a not-very-specialized term: We talk a great deal about biting the bullet. For example, ”I confronted David Lewis with my damning objection to modal realism, and he bit the bullet.” I have asked a number of philosophers about what, precisely, this means, and received a startling range of replies.

Around 70% say that the metaphor has to do with surgery. … So, in philosophy, for you to bite the bullet is for you to grimly accept seemingly absurd consequences of the theory you endorse. This is, I think, the most widely understood sense of the term.

Some others say that the metaphor has to do with injury … So in philosophy, for you to acknowledge that you are biting the bullet is for you to acknowledge that an objection has gravely wounded your theory.


One philosopher said to me that the metaphor has to do with magic. To bite a bullet is to catch a bullet, Houdini-style, in your teeth. So, in philosophy, for you to bite the bullet is for you to elegantly intercept a seemingly lethal objection and render it benign.


I conclude from my highly unscientific survey that, more than 30 percent of the time, when a philosopher claims to be ”biting the bullet,” a small gap opens up between what he or she means and what his or her reader or listener understands him or her to mean.

And I guess these small gaps in understanding are more common than we normally think.”

Please, don’t go back to my blog archive and look for cases of me railing against someone’s improper use of scientific language, because I’m sure I’ve done it too many times. Mea maxima culpa.