The trouble with ‘fulsome’

The word fulsome is used quite regularly by public figures in Ireland, often politicians promising or demanding apologies. Whenever this happens, it is criticised as an “incorrect” usage: see for example this letter to the Irish Times, which supports its point by reference to the AP Stylebook.

This is not a new complaint, but it is a debatable one. The trouble isn’t that fulsome is being used incorrectly, but that it has more than one common and legitimate meaning in modern English. Compounding this is the awkward fact that some of its meanings are contradictory and used in similar contexts, so the speaker’s intent isn’t always obvious.

The disputed meaning of fulsome – “abundant, copious, full” – is the earliest sense of the word, dating to Middle English and described by Merriam-Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage (MWCDEU) as “the etymologically purest sense”. It fell out of favour but returned in the 20th century, attracting criticism. Though often considered a less than proper usage, it is popular, and broadly applied:

Anne had a fulsome figure and a placid face.

The moon may be fulsome and bright somewhere over the Katakani.

He glanced down at his fulsome belly.

Some offer slightly scarier casseroles or more fulsome salad fixings.

His hospital gown healthy and fulsome compared to what it held.

It is expected that I be gracious and fulsome with praise on the wonders of this blessed union.

All are recent examples from COCA. At least two are ambiguous. Other meanings of fulsome that prevail in current usage include offensive or disgusting; overdone or overblown; and complimentary in an excessive or insincere way. (Dictionaries group these and other senses differently.) Here’s a example of the “offensive or disgusting” sense:

A noxious odor compounded of the sterile smell of the hospital corridors and a fulsome reek of decay, like rotting peaches

And some corpus-drawn examples of the “excessively complimentary” sense, which is typically applied to praise, tributes, obituaries, and other such formalised linguistic packages:

Dixon’s speeches were characteristically patronizing, fulsome, and oblique.

Obituaries can be tedious and fulsome, but not in the hands of this splendid stylist.

They invariably honor some (usually insignificant) knight or duke with fulsome words of sycophantic insincerity.

The French government received fulsome praise this week from Zimbabwe’s maximum leader, Robert Mugabe.

“I think it’s – exceedingly well done,” said Betty, at a loss for words which would convey her admiration without sounding fulsome.

His superficially positive letters were, in the context of the fulsome prose of several hundred such letters, encoded with negatives.

This state of affairs is not ideal, because ambiguity can arise easily. For example, fulsome frequently collocates with praise, resulting in phrases that can be interpreted in different ways: Is fulsome praise favourable (full, lavish, effusive praise) or derogatory (overblown, fawning praise)? Generous and sincere, or too generous, insincere? Is it a mark of biting finesse, or a mere fancyism for full?

Consider the phrase fulsome flavour when applied to wine, or sauce. On the label of a bottle, it surely means full, rich, strong. But if your friend says it with an expression of disgust, then repulsive or offensive is meant. Are fulsome apologies hypocritical or earnest? Without further information, we can only guess.

Fulsome is polysemous, chameleonic, contranymic, having begun positively, lurched negatively, and then swung back towards widespread positive use. The word itself is inherently ambiguous, as MWCDEU notes:

There is a real problem with the use of fulsome when it is applied to praise, to an introduction, or to similar ceremonial devices. Fulsome does not immediately connote disparagement to the mind of the hearer, reader, or user encountering it for the first time. There is plenty of evidence that fulsome is taken to be either neutral, meaning approximately “full and detailed,” or even complimentary, meaning approximately “generous” or “lavish.” . . .

If you are tempted to use fulsome, remember that it is quite likely to be misunderstood by both the innocent reader and the gimlet-eyed purist unless your context makes your intended meaning abundantly clear. It is not a word familiar enough to carry an ambiguous context to a clear conclusion.

So should we avoid it? Some authorities think so, at least sometimes. The American Heritage Dictionary (5th ed.) says abstention may be best “unless the context is unambiguous in conveying the notion of excessiveness or offensiveness”. R. L. Trask advises avoidance “unless you are sure of your readership” (Mind the Gaffe, 2001). Bryan Garner says it’s “skunked” and therefore unusable. Many style guides proscribe the “full, abundant” sense.

I don’t think you have to avoid fulsome, but you should consider alternatives given the strong potential for both confusion and criticism. The word’s meanings and connotations are many and contradictory, so even if your tone or surrounding text disambiguates the possibilities, critics may frown and fuss while others might scratch their heads and wonder. However you use it, you’re likely to distract some readers.

Robert Burchfield, in his revised Fowler’s, says it is “unlikely that the two opposing senses will remain in the language permanently, but the outcome of the battle between them will doubtless not emerge until the 21C” – if even then. Despite some people’s wish for a tidy One Word, One Meaning formula, language just isn’t that well-behaved. And that’s the fulsome truth.

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12 Responses to The trouble with ‘fulsome’

  1. languagehat says:

    I generally dislike the “just avoid it” approach (especially when peddled by Garner), but I have to admit this is one word I do avoid. It’s simply impossible to use in a way you can expect to be clear to most readers.

  2. marc leavitt says:

    Stan:
    My brain itches when I see “fulsome” used, usually collocated with “praise.” It’s a favorite of politicians, who almost always use it in a well-meaning way (if “well-meaning politician” doesn’t make your gorge rise). I think the word is largely returning to the old meaning, but I try to avoid it, precisely because of its contemporary ambiguity.

  3. Stan says:

    Hat: Yes, I think the “just avoid it” approach is rarely justified or necessary, but in the case of fulsome I’m inclined to support it. The semantics are a mess.

    Marc: It tends to be politicians (or current affairs commentators) I hear it from, too, and usually in the old-turned-new-again sense of “full, bounteous”. But the negative senses are too well established to allow this usage free passage.

  4. Barry says:

    I agree with all you say and the (first) three comments. I would only ever use the word in the second sense you describe, mainly because I would not wish to be associated with those who, for whatever reason, use it sloppily in the first sense, a feeling I often have in such cases: arrogance perhaps.

  5. alexmccrae1546 says:

    When folk here in these parts (the State of California) hear the rarely used word “fulsome”, instinctively we harken to one of our most venerable maximum security penal institutions, the infamous Folsom* State Prison, just a stone’s throw to the northeast of our state capital, Sacramento.

    Founded way back in 1880, and to this day still fully operational, the late, great Johnny Cash immortalized the prison, in song, with his powerful self-penned ballad, “Folsom Prison Blues” (1958).

    Cash performed for the inmates of Folsom on two separate occasions, his last being in 1968. This rather unorthodox gig provided the meat of his future hit ‘live’ album, “At Folsom Prison”, released that very same year.

    *I realize that “Folsom” isn’t a pure homophone of “fulsome”… but like in horseshoes, it’s close enough… hmm… or maybe not?

  6. wisewebwoman says:

    “His hospital gown healthy and fulsome compared to what it held.”

    Good grief, Stan, please tell us more!

    XO
    WWW

  7. Stan says:

    Barry: I think the usage you call “sloppy” (which is also often called “loose” or even “incorrect”) is more likely to prevail than the pejorative usage. Of course, you have the option of accepting it or continuing to criticise it.

    Alex: …and that’s the other trouble with fulsome.

    WWW: I had the same reaction at first, but I think it’s a reference to his entire body, and that the subject is a patient on a HIV ward. It’s from a story called Think, Feel, See by Molly McQuade.

  8. dave says:

    Excellent post.

    I have a writer colleague who often uses fulsome to describe the female figure, meaning large-chested. I suppose this is one case where the meaning isn’t necessarily ambiguous but I still tend to change it if I’m editing his copy because it really grates. I’m not totally prescriptivist about it though – I have let it through occasionally.

    • Stan says:

      Thanks, Dave. I don’t think fulsome is necessarily that specific. In the first COCA example above (“Anne had a fulsome figure”), for instance, I think it’s more general – meaning full-figured, including hips and so on. In any case, fulsome = full is going to annoy certain readers, so I can see why you’d tend to change it.

      Alex, I’ve removed your second comment. 3–4 off-topic paragraphs about Folsom Prison and Johnny Cash is already pushing it, but 5 more about different words for the female anatomy? Come on.

      • alexmccrae1546 says:

        Stan,

        Mea culpa.

        I apologize, realizing NOW that not only were my multiple comments re/ the female figure drifting far off-topic into redundance, (as you’ve rightly indicated), but also, in retrospect, I sense that for some readers my somewhat flip observations might have been seen as tinged with some degree of sexism… for which I regret, and apologize for, as well.

        Stan, I appreciate your calling me out here. Clearly I WAS “pushing it”, and should have quit while I was ahead.

      • Stan says:

        Thanks, Alex.

  9. […] tens of thousands of cases. We’re told fulsome is “not a fancy word for full”, but it can be. […]

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