Wednesday, October 27, 2021

What does "fulsome" really mean?

"Fulsome" is one of those words that politicians like to use a lot. A "fulsome apology", "fulsome praise", "in fulsome detail", a "fulsome investigation", that kind of thing. 

I've always been of the opinion that most people are misusing the word in most cases, and that they would have been better served using a simpler word like "full" or "complete". But it seems like this is another word that has changed its meaning (or at least added a new meaning) in recent decades, quite possibly as a result of constant misuse leading to a de facto acceptance of the new (albeit incorrect) usage. "Momentarily" is another such example, and I am sure there are several others.

"Fulsome" is an old word, and it has gone through a whole host of changes in meaning over the centuries. Back in the 13th century, it originally meant "copious". Over the years, it began to be used to mean "plump" or "shapely" or "well-developed", but also "filling" or "heavy" (as in food). This latter sense gradually morphed to a more pejorative meaning of "cloying" or "excessive", and even "nauseating", "repulsive" or "offensive" (even though the root of "ful-" is not, as dictionary-maker Noah Webster apparently thought, the same as that of "foul"). 

At any rate the meanings of "offensive", "overdone" and "exceeding the bounds of good taste" became the SOLE sense of the word "fulsome" by the 18th century, as well as the equally pejorative sense of "excessively complimentary or flattering". These meanings can still be found in the dictionary, and it is particularly the latter meaning that I was brought up with, hence my conviction that all those politicians are just "getting it wrong".

But it seems that, in more recent decades, a meaning of "copious" or "generous" - not dissimilar to its early, medieval meaning - has once more come to be accepted, and this meaning too appears in today's dictionaries. Now, I don't have any direct evidence, but I assume that this has occurred mainly because it sounds like "full", but it sounds fancier, more official somehow, and not because someone did some exhaustive research into the word's ancient etymology.

So, maybe when Justin Trudeau issues yet another "fulsome apology", he is not so wrong after all. Maybe I am just living in the past, and the English language has just moved on without me.

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