[The Grammarphobia Blog revisited this subject on Nov. 3, 2014. See our new post.]
Q: I’m an investment banker who’s driven crazy by people using the term “fulsome” for abundant. Any advice on how to correct them without being obnoxious? Please say something about this during one of your appearances on the Leonard Lopate Show.
A: I haven’t found a graceful way to correct people’s English, so I don’t. Leonard once joked on the air that anyone who misuses “fulsome” should be sent to Folsom Prison. But seriously, the word “fulsome” has been confused so much over the years that it may be beyond saving.
In modern times the accepted meaning has been disgustingly excessive, overly flattering, or insincere. But once upon a time it carried no suggestion of insincerity or excessiveness, especially in phrases like “fulsome praise” and “fulsome apology.”
The fact is that “fulsome” didn’t always have negative connotations. The word meant just “abundant” when it first appeared in print back in 1250, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Over the centuries, it came to mean overdone, cloying, gross, nauseating, disgusting, loathsome, and so on.
A case can be made that the folks who misuse “fulsome” now are simply reviving the original meaning of the word. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, in its “fulsome” entry, appears to take that position, saying such a usage “is etymologically justified.”
But the dictionary recommends using “abundant” or “full” in place of “fulsome” to avoid raised eyebrows or misunderstandings. I concur. Let’s give “fulsome” a rest.