Q: At a news conference the other day, the Pentagon press secretary, Rear Adm. John Kirby, referred to having “a more fulsome discussion” of Iraq/Syria strategy. Hmmm. Is Admiral Kirby right to use the word this way? I, the traditionalist, think “fulsome” means excessive, not abundant.
A: We discussed “fulsome” on the blog in 2007, but it’s probably time to take another look at this troublesome adjective.
To begin at the beginning, the word “fulsome” meant simply “abundant” when it first appeared in writing back in 1250, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
Over the centuries, it came to mean overdone, cloying, gross, nauseating, disgusting, loathsome, foul, and so on. In the 18th century, in fact, it was sometimes spelled “foulsome.”
Nearly all of those negative senses, the OED says, are now considered obsolete. The dictionary says the adjective “fulsome” is “now chiefly used in reference to gross or excessive flattery, over-demonstrative affection, or the like.”
However, the dictionary acknowledges that its “fulsome” entry, which was originally published in 1898, “has not yet been fully updated.”
Today, some standard dictionaries include “abundant” as either a standard or an informal meaning of “fulsome.”
The up-to-date Oxford Dictionaries online, for example, defines “fulsome” as either “complimentary or flattering to an excessive degree,” or “of large size or quantity; generous or abundant.” Both senses are treated as standard English.
The Oxford Dictionaries website site gives this example of the first sense: “the press are embarrassingly fulsome in their appreciation.” And it gives this example of the second: “the fulsome details of the later legend.”
Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) also lists the “abundant” sense of “fulsome” as standard while the Collins English Dictionary describes it as informal.
Merriam-Webster’s says in a usage note that the original “abundant” sense of the word “has not only been revived but has spread in its application and continues to do so.”
But M-W cautions that the “chief danger for the user of fulsome is ambiguity,” and unless “the context is made very clear, the reader or hearer cannot be sure whether such an expression as ‘fulsome praise’ is meant” in the sense of “abundant” or “excessive.”
The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) is even more troubled by the “abundant” sense. The dictionary describes it as a “usage problem,” and says a large majority of its usage panel objects to it.
We think the chance of being misunderstood is so great that it’s probably best to give “fulsome” an extended sabbatical.
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