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December 8th, 2004

Salutations on greeting cards / fulsome/ a misspelling

by Barbara Wallraff

Anonymous, of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, writes: “My question is, Should a salutation be used on greeting cards? I receive cards devoid of name and ones that start ‘Hi, Mary.’ ‘Hi, Mary’ — they could be sent to anyone! I feel offended to receive a card without a ‘Dear Mary.’ Am I wrong? Please don’t use my real name. I’m 97 years old and receive lots of blank cards.”

Dear, hmmm, Mary: As far as I know, a basic rule of etiquette is that we mustn’t take offense when no offense is intended. But of course, etiquette isn’t my specialty. In terms of language, I think I know what’s going on with those cards you get. American habits are becoming more and more informal. For instance, I can’t remember the last time I heard someone say “I beg your pardon.” Nowadays about the best we can hope for is “’Scuse me.”
In written communication, e-mail has definitely encouraged informality. A person sending business e-mail is likely to use the salutation “Dear,” because it’s traditional and makes the message seem more like a real business letter. But e-mail between friends usually starts with “Hi” — when it includes any salutation at all. So if the people sending you cards have picked up e-mail habits, no doubt they consider “Hi, Mary” to be more warm and personal than “Dear Mary.” You might suppose that “Dear” means you’re especially dear to the person sending you the card, but in this upside-down world of ours it’s often the opposite. Why not look at it that way?

P.S. I envy you for having reached the age of 97 and for getting lots of cards from people who are thinking of you!

A. Kenneth Goldsby, of Commerce, Mich., writes: “What can be done to help people understand that the word ‘fulsome’ does not mean ‘plentiful’ or ‘generous’ but in fact means ‘offensive’ or ‘disgusting’? There is no such thing as ‘fulsome praise.’”

Dear Kenneth: There is such a thing, but I wouldn’t want to receive it. Tradition-minded language authorities agree with you: “Fulsome” praise is the excessive, phony, smarmy kind. And yet people do use “fulsome” in sincere compliments. They’ve used it that way often enough, over the years, that standard dictionaries like Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate now give both meanings for the word. The Collegiate cautions, “The chief danger for the user of ‘fulsome’ is ambiguity.”

I don’t use “fulsome” in a positive sense, because I’m supposed to know about language, and anyone who knows the history of this word realizes that at best it cuts both ways. Nonetheless, please see my previous comment, to “Mary,” about not taking offense when no offense is intended.

In a recent column I challenged you to find the misspelled word and promised that one reader who found it would receive a free autographed copy of my book “Your Own Words.” As the great majority of people who took up the challenge recognized, the misspelled word was “mispelled.” (Tee-hee.) The winner of the book, chosen at random, is Gail Van Haren, of Blue Mounds, Wis. Congratulations, Gail — my book is on its way to you. And everyone can stop looking for misspellings now (please!). That was a special holiday offer.

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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