Yates: As 'Fulsome' and Comprehensive as Possible

Lookups spiked over 4700% after Yates used the word

Fulsome, a word of great semantic breadth, was among our top lookups on May 8th, 2017, after Sally Yates, the former acting attorney general, used it in remarks at a Senate hearing. Lookups for the word increased to over 4700% over the usual hourly rate.

At the outset of her much-anticipated testimony, Yates promised to “be as fulsome and as comprehensive as possible’’ while noting that there were classified issues she cannot discuss, and legal issues that prevent her from testifying about other matters.
—Devlin Barret and Sari Horwitz, The Washington Post, 8 May 2017

Fulsome may have positive connotations, but the word may also carry negative ones, and its use in this context (promising forthrightness) struck some observers as odd. Since the word entered our language in the 13th century it has had such disparate meanings as “copious,” “plump,” “full and well developed in sound,” “lustful,” nauseating,” exceeding the bounds of good taste,” and several others besides. We've written an entire article about how confusing the word can be.

Yates is not the only newsworthy figure to have recently used fulsome in what might be characterized as a semantically adventurous fashion. Several days ago, numerous stories carried a quote from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in which this word was prominently featured.

“It was a very constructive call that the two presidents had,” Mr. Tillerson told reporters. “It was a very, very fulsome call, a lot of detailed exchanges. So we’ll see where we go from here.”
—Peter Baker and Neil MacFarquhar, The New York Times, 2 May 2017

Our Unabridged Dictionary has the following usage note under the entry for fulsome:

Fulsome has had a wide variety of meanings in its long history of use. By the 19th century it seemed to have settled into place as a literary term chiefly expressing disapproval of excessive and obsequious praise and flattery. But in the 20th century its old associations with its etymological relative full, an adjective that more often than not has positive connotations, underwent a revival of sorts as its use became more widespread. The result is that fulsome is now used with positive or neutral connotations at least as often as with negative connotations. One consequence of that change is that its meaning in contexts like <fulsome praise> and <a fulsome apology> can sometimes be ambiguous, although usually the intended sense can be identified easily enough in a given passage. Its use in such contexts without overtones of excessiveness and insincerity is often regarded as an error, as are its other positive or neutral uses. As noted above, however, those uses occur commonly in current English.

Trend Watch tracks and reports on the words that people are looking up. You can see all the Trend Watch articles here.

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