I Pity the Full!

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Something strange has happened to the useful expression “foolproof.” Many writers are writing “full proof” to mean “safe against misinterpretation, misuse, or failure”:

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The expression foolproof originated in 1902 as an Americanism meaning “safe against the incompetence of a fool.” It combines the words fool and proof.

fool: a person lacking in judgment or prudence; a person who acts stupidly or recklessly

proof: The evidence or argument that compels the mind to accept an assertion as true.

Foolproof follows the pattern of such words as fireproof and waterproof and means that something has been tested and proved to withstand certain damaging agents.

The growing use of the expression “full proof” in the sense of “foolproof” may stem from a reluctance to cause offense to the fool demographic.

Yet the definition in Merriam-Webster Unabridged skillfully manages to define foolproof without the slightest mention of the wisdom-challenged portion of the population:
1 : so simple, plain, or strong as not to be liable to be misunderstood, damaged, or misused
2 : guaranteed to operate without breakdown or failure under any conditions

There probably are contexts in which the expression “full proof” can be justified. For example, one might demand “full proof” of identity. Although it seems to me that “proof” would suffice.

The expression “to make full proof” occurs in the King James translation of the Bible:

But watch thou in all things, endure afflictions, do the work of an evangelist, make full proof of thy ministry. 2 Timothy 4:5

The expression and discussions of its meaning are to be found on many evangelical sites:

What constitutes “full proof” in Paul’s advice to Timothy?

I think “make full proof of” means to fulfill the ministry that God gives you to do.

If you just can’t bear to use an expression that you fear may suggest you’re calling someone a fool, here are a few words you could substitute in certain contexts:


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22 thoughts on “I Pity the Full!”

  1. “The growing use of the expression “full proof” in the sense of “foolproof” may stem from a reluctance to cause offense to the fool demographic.”

    You are joking, aren’t you?

  2. Why in the world would anyone want to use “fullproof”? It looks utterly wrong. I don’t see how saying “foolproof” is in any way offensive; you’re not directly insulting anybody, so why should anyone mind?

  3. A halve notice, ore all lease grained at genial cents, fat money for he miss steaks disgusted resent wood bee overbook bye an commuter smell cheek polygon. Papule unfamiliar wit these world are praise, heaving one lie herd bit broken, mite nor recon guys he corset used an sparing. Them commuter ornery nose flat he world in sprawled correct, no than its these in collect weird.

    I have noticed, or at least gained a general sense, that many of the mistakes discussed recently would be overlooked by a computer spell checking program. People unfamiliar with the word or phrase, having only heard it spoken, might not recognize the correct use and spelling. The computer only knows that the word is spelled correctly, not that it is the incorrect word.

  4. “Writers” aren’t making this mistake – illiterate bloggers are making this mistake. Another bit of evidence that owning a computer keyboard does not make you a professional writer. Learn your craft – THEN publish your blog. The alternative is looking like a fool.

  5. @Ed Buckner – your post would be humorous is so much of the Interent didn’t ‘read’ exactly like your first paragraph

  6. They that live by the sword shall die by the sword–Moo Kahn, you need to proofread every post with extreme care, if you are going to be nasty about other people’s fallibility, because when you make a silly error (such as substituting “is” for “if”) the rest of the world is not likely to cut you a lot of slack.

  7. I have yet to come across the expression ‘full proof’ and I must say I am a little worried by what I’ve read here. Surely people shouldn’t be using a word or phrase unless they understand it? That is what the dictionary is for… not to mention the number of online dictionaries available these days!

  8. “The growing use of the expression … may stem from a reluctance to cause offense to the fool demographic. “ –Maeve

    I appreciate your sense of humor, Maeve. When I read the above sentence, I laughed hard. Still, it’s honey on the tongue. Occasionally I find myself in-and-out of the fool demographic. Without laughter, life is dull.

  9. @Katie: I expect that most of those who write “full proof” understand what it means; they just don’t know the correct spelling and don’t even know that they don’t know it.

    I presume that if they think about the derivation at all, they assume it is fully resilient to all eventualities.

    Because they don’t realise their mistake, they are unlikely to refer to a dictionary, regardless of how many are available to them.

  10. I agree with Moo Kahn that writers are not the ones making such mistakes, nor are readers. The first admonition given to any would-be writer is to read as much as possible in as many genres as possible. My husband, who is by his own confession neither a writer nor a grammarian, writes and spells correctly because he is a voracious reader. The more we take in and appreciate good writing, the more we are able to produce good writing.

    Computers and self-publishing have, indeed, made it far too easy for incompetent authors–as well as those who write competently but have nothing to say–to broadcast their inanities. The responsibility lies with readers and subscribers to support and commend excellent writing while working to improve inferior writing.

    Hats off to contributors and subscribers to Daily Writing Tips for their role in the National Save the Language Campaign!

  11. @Julie–well said. I “support and commend [your] excellent writing”!

    One of my English professors on the first day of class said, “To be a great writer, you have to be a great reader.” So true!

    I think such malapropisms (?) as “full proof” are there to make some of us think and some of us feel superior. ;->

    (A fellow “writer” once asked me to edit copy that had the phrase “foul swoop” in it. It took some convincing for her to agree that it should be “fell swoop.”)

  12. Never heard of an “eggcorn.” According to wikipedia, an eggcorn “is a similar substitution in which the new phrase makes sense on some level. ” fullproof makes no sense on any level. They’re just using the wrong word (full instead of fool), which makes it a malapropism: “substitution of a word for a word with a similar sound, in which the resulting phrase makes no sense but often creates a comic effect.”

    Yeah, I wikipedia might not be a stellar resource, but do a Google search for define:malapropism and you’ll find that “fullproof” fits the definition.

  13. @Karla: There is overlap in the meaning of Malapropism and eggcorn, and I don’t think it’s a big deal either way.

    “Fullproof” is certainly wrong, but it could make sense to some people who think of it as meaning fully resilient to all eventualities.

    Without asking those who make the mistake, we’ll never know.

  14. From Douglas Adams, in “Mostly Harmless”:

    “A common mistake… when trying to design something completely foolproof is to underestimate the ingenuity of complete fools.”

  15. I guess it’s “full proof” that being a writer on the internet is not.. “foolproof.” Aha… ha… ha..

  16. “You are joking, aren’t you?” (on offending the fool demographic)

    @Cecily: Probably yes and no. Although the term is usually never directed at any particular person, we see many ways in which our language has softened recently to be less offensive.

    Terms no longer used (thankfully) like “idiot savant” or “mongoloid idiot” come to mind. And yes, I consider the past century to be recent.

  17. @Cecily:”I presume that if they think about the derivation at all, they assume it is fully resilient to all eventualities. ”

    Precisely! The point of reading is to understand what the writer is conveying, not to examine the skills of the author. That is a job of editors.

    One phrase bore the existence of another, as Gospel influenced Elvis.

    English is a constantly evolving language, yet always there is an arrogant critic! People who may be speaking Shakespeare to the generations of tomorrow.

    I come from a diverse country with a great range of English speakers, some speak English as a second or third language only. As the words change in phrases so do the meanings, I think accents are partly responsible too.

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