Wednesday, September 24, 2008


Elaine and I had a nice moment of laughter a few days ago about the word plethora. Why does anyone use it seriously? Because it adds a thin, cheap gloss to the plainest of statements:

Our students can choose from five concentrations in the major.

Our students have a plethora of options for concentration within the major.

[These sample sentences are not drawn from life.]
For those who aim to impress via pomposity, plethora will do.

One might seek a cure though in looking at what the word means. The Oxford English Dictionary spills it:
1. Med. Originally: overabundance of one or more humours, esp. blood; an instance of this. In later use: excessive volume of blood (hypervolaemia or, now rarely, polycythaemia) or excessive fullness of blood vessels (now esp. as seen on X-rays); an instance of this.

2. fig. An unhealthy or damaging plenitude or excess of something; a state of surfeit or glut. Obs.

3. Usu. with of. Originally in pejorative sense: an excessive supply, an overabundance; an undesirably large quantity. Subsequently, and more usually, in neutral or favourable sense: a very large amount, quantity, or variety.
Thinking of bodily humors and bulging vessels might be enough to stop anyone's inclination toward plethora. Another reason to avoid this word: it's reputed to be, along with myriad, a favorite of those who score SAT essays. Reasonable to assume that it's a favorite too of those test-takers who likewise believe that one secret of good writing is farcical, pompous diction. A plethora of test-takers, if you will. (I hope you won't.)

comments: 4

Chaser said...

I love the word plethora and use it in jokes a lot "I have a veritable plethora of crap to do."

I guess I just think words are fun, like toys. Sure, it serves the English police and Strunk and White acolytes to say "I have a lot of crap to do." It's so much more concise! But a whole lot less fun and evocative of the problem--which is that much of the crap I have to do relates to inessential complication.

Michael Leddy said...

I think we're in agreement here. I asked, "Why does anyone use it seriously?"

Tim Walker said...

The best gloss on this that I know of -- one that highlights the pomposity -- comes from "The Three Amigos":

"Would you say I have a plethora of pinatas?"

Full exchange here.

Michael Leddy said...

Thanks for sharing that, Tim!