Plethora Galore

When does ‘many’ become ‘too many’?

The English language has many words for “many”: “abundance,” “multitude,” “profusion,” “a lot,” and so forth. With such a “myriad” of choices,* it can be useful to maintain the nuances to indicate whether the large quantity is a good thing, a bad thing, or just a lot of things.

We’ve already discussed how “fulsome” really means “offensively excessive” or “insincere,” though its connotation has waffled through the years. That battle appears lost, as usage of “fulsome” to mean just “a whole lot” is outpacing the “correct” usage.

But the language meddlers are not content with that victory. Now a bunch of them seem to have set their sights on “plethora.”

“I felt as though I were stepping back into history at this atmospheric place, which had a plethora of fine beers on tap,” the story about a beer tour of Germany said. Another story, about the first signs of an economic recovery, said “that area already has a plethora of restaurants and big-box stores.” An obit said someone was survived by “a plethora of nieces and nephews,” and a clambake festival promised “a plethora of activities.”

All of those imply that the “plethora” is a good thing.

Now take these examples:

A”plethora of insurgent groups” is operating in Afghanistan and Pakistan; a football team is “battered by a plethora of injuries; a city “is facing a plethora of problems that need urgent attention.”

In those cases, the “plethora” is a bad thing—too many.

The Oxford English Dictionary says that “plethora” was originally used only in a medical sense to mean “overabundance of one or more humours, esp. blood” (British spelling maintained), which is not good, medically speaking. Most dictionaries still say it means “too much”: “the state of being too full; overabundance; excess,” is the nonmedical definition in Webster’s New World College Dictionary (Fourth Edition). (“Plethora,” by the way, is a singular noun, and is pronounced PLEH-thor-ah, not pleh-THOR-ah.)

Garner’s Modern American Usage says using “plethora” to mean only “plenty” or “many” is “an unfortunate degeneration of sense.” But Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, ever the realist (or language destroyer, depending on your point of view), says that “plethora” can connote “an undesirable excess, an undesirably large supply but not an excess, an excess that is not necessarily or not greatly undesirable, and simply an abundant supply. All of these uses are well attested and standard.”

If Nexis is any guide, more people use “plethora” to mean simply “a lot” or “we’re lucky to have so many.”

But with so many words that merely quantify things, isn’t it useful to have a few—not many—that preserve the distinction between simply “a lot” and “too many”? Or is that asking too much?

* Yes, “a myriad of” is correct, as is “myriad.”

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.