- A large amount or prevalence of something; overabundance
- An excessive amount of something; much more than is needed or can be handled
- A medical condition involving swelling caused by surplus of blood or other bodily fluid
According to some linguists, there are (VERY roughly) about one million words in the English language. Think about the words you use in everyday conversation, and then let that sink in for a moment. One million words. Some pessimists might call that number way too much; they might frown and shake their boring heads, convinced that one million words are far more than any speaker would ever need. Others (ourselves included) believe that there is no such upper limit and consider it wonderful that English has such a varied profusion of terms! Whichever camp you find yourself in, though, you could easily say that English has a plethora of words.
Plethora provides an interesting example of linguistic evolution. Technically, the word's "correct" definition for use in conversation (as in, the one you'd be sure to find in any dictionary) describes an excessive amount or number of something. This meaning of plethora is often applied to an exceptionally large amount, way more than can be used or handled - for example, a thirty-pound bag of dog biscuits, more than your little beagle could ever hope to eat, would be a plethora of treats. The word can also be used to describe a quantity that is much more than is formally specified or called for; in this sense, a wardrobe full of suits would be a plethora if you just needed one for an upcoming interview. Key to this usage of plethora is the idea that the amount in question is far more than is appropriate.
However, in casual conversation, plethora has assumed a secondary usage that deviates somewhat from its textbook definition. As the word has been applied in broader and broader contexts, plethora has evolved to also describe any generally large amount. Although this usage certainly defines an enormous (sometimes comically so) quantity, it does not imply that the object is in excess. For instance, if you were to wake up one morning to find your lawn covered in a blanket of mushrooms, you could easily say you had a plethora of fungi. Rather than being way too much, this more neutral usage of plethora simply implies that there is a whole lot; so in our previous example, this large amount might be just fine with you, depending on your attitude towards mushrooms. This usage of plethora has caught on in modern conversation, and some dictionaries are beginning to recognize it as a valid definition.
Interestingly, plethora was first used as a medical term, and this definition is still in use today. This original meaning of plethora describes a surplus of bodily fluid (usually blood) that causes swelling and a reddish skin color in the part of body in which it collects. Fair warning: looking up plethora in medical textbooks can reveal some rather strange images.
Example: Last summer my garden yielded such a plethora of tomatoes that I had enough to give some to everyone on my street.
Example: Harold had plenty of time to lament the plethora of cars on the roads as he sat trapped in afternoon gridlock.
Example: Unfortunately, a side-effect of the medicine Greta was taking caused her to experience some plethora in her left leg.
Stemming from plethore, the Greek word for "ampleness" or "fullness," plethora's medical usage was the first to appear in English, showing up to describe a surplus of bodily fluid in the mid-sixteenth century. The more general usage of plethora to describe a surplus of anything was first noted in 1700, and the word has since evolved to connote any significantly large amount.
Plethoric: The adjective form of plethora describes something as being excessively or ridiculously copious.
Example: The plethoric amount of mosquitos ruined what would have otherwise been a lovely day at the beach.
Even though plethora refers to a lot of things, it is a singular noun. So, "A plethora of choices" or "There is a plethora of mushrooms" indicates one entity - although, like any other single group of plural items, you will frequently come across usage which treats the phrase with plethora in it as plural.
From Thomas Hardys' Far From the Madding Crowd:
…it had been arranged that Farmer Oak should go there to live, since he had as yet neither money, house, nor furniture worthy of the name, though he was on a sure way towards them, whilst Bathsheba was, comparatively, in a plethora of all three.
Here, plethora is used to describe Bathsheba's surplus of amenities.
- Plethora has plenty!
Bring out the linguist in you! What is your own interpretation of plethora. Did you use plethora in a game? Provide an example sentence or a literary quote.