The Grammarphobia Blog

Full time

Q: I’m curious (and I hope you are) about the expression “I’m full. ” It’s a funny way of saying “I’ve had enough to eat.” I wonder—do people in impoverished countries have such a usage or even the notion of being full?

A: It’s the holiday season, and the adjective “full” has been on a lot of lips lately. In fact, it’s been on the lips of English speakers since Anglo-Saxon days, though not always in reference to their stomachs.

When the word first showed up, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it was used to describe a bowl or other object “having within its limits all it will hold; having no space empty; replete.”

The earliest written example in the OED is from the Old English poem “Judith,” which describes the beheading of the Assyrian general Holofernes in the Book of Judith:

“Thær wæron bollan steape boren æfter bencum gelome, swylce eac bunan ond orcas fulle fletsittendum.” (We’ve changed the runic letter thorn to “th.”) Here’s a modern English version of the citation, which describes a feast for warriors:

“There were goblets deep borne off to the benches, with bowls and beakers full, to the feasters.”

The date of the poem is uncertain, but it’s an appendage to the Nowell Codex, the manuscript that contains Beowulf, which may have been written as early as 725.

The adjective “full” took on its gastrointestinal sense around the year 1000, according to published references in the OED. The dictionary’s first citation is from the Paris Psalter, a Byzantine illuminated manuscript.

Here’s an example from an early (1382) version of the Wycliffe Bible: “Thei ben ful of must.” (The word “must” here refers to the juice of freshly pressed grapes in winemaking.)

We don’t agree with you that “I’m full” is a strange way of saying “I’ve had enough to eat.” It’s not much of an etymological leap from a full goblet to a full stomach.

Over the years, the adjective “full” has been used to describe, among other things, a pregnant animal, an emotional heart, a circular moon, a plump person, a sail filled with wind, a complete payment, a poker hand, a football player, etc.

John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins says the word “full” is ultimately derived from the Indo-European root ple-, which passed into prehistoric Germanic as the reconstructed words fulnaz and later fullaz.

The Indo-European root gave Latin the word plenus (full), which is the source of such English words as “plenary,” “plenty,” and “complete,” as well as plein and pieno, French and Italian words for full.

You’ve asked whether people in impoverished countries say things like “I’m full” at mealtime or even have the notion of being full.

Well, there are fat cats in poor countries as well as rich ones, and we’re pretty sure they feel full when they leave the dinner table.

Do they say things like “I’m full”? Some of them, apparently. We’ve read that in Swahili, which is spoken in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, and other African nations, “Nimeshiba” means “I’m full.”

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