“Unctuous and insincere toadying”

Not my words, but those of Bill Bryson who, before he became the world-famous travel writer, was the much-revered (in sub-editing circles, at least) author of the Penguin Dictionary of Troublesome Words. I have the original 1984 edition, others are available.

As has been widely reported this week, the UK’s International Development Secretary has resigned/been sacked from her position after certain difficulties arose with her failure to tell her colleagues what she did on her holiday in Israel. She spent an awkward hour or so in No 10 before issuing the letter seen above.

What has not been widely reported this week is the language howler in her resignation letter. Ms Patel offered the Prime Minister her ‘fulsome apology’, presumably under the impression that this is a beefed-up version of a ‘full apology’. However, as the estimable Mr Bryson says, the sense that is usually accorded the word ‘fulsome’ – of being copious or lavish or unstinting is almost the opposite of the word’s actual meaning. ‘Fulsome,’ he writes:

is related to foul and means odious and overfull, offensively insincere. ‘Fulsome praise’, properly used, isn’t a lavish tribute; it is unctuous and insincere toadying.

There was a time when civil servants (who presumably drafted Ms Patel’s letter) were given Ernest Gower’s Plain Words to help them to learn how better to express themselves. Someone slipped up here.

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