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.