Usage Notes

Is 'Fulsome Praise' a Good Thing?

The word has both positive and negative meanings, so context is key


Fulsome is a troublesome word. And, it turns out, it’s a rare case in which dictionaries have made the word’s meaning more confusing rather than more clear.

Fulsome seems like an emphatic way of saying “full” or “complete,” and, indeed, the oldest use of the word in English goes back to the 1200s, when it meant “copious.” It then came to be used to mean “plump” or “shapely,” and, more figuratively, “full and well developed,” as in “the opera singer’s fulsome voice.”

fulsome

'Fulsome' can express disapproval of excessive flattery ("Instead of applying himself to his studies, the student attempted to win good grades by showering his teacher with fulsome praise") or simply indicate abundance ("The grateful alumnus was fulsome in his praise of his high school English teacher.")

So far, so good: many words’ meanings move from concrete senses to more abstract ones over time.

The Oxford English Dictionary records a parallel trajectory of the meaning of fulsome, this time relating to food rather than size. It started out meaning “filling” or “heavy,” then “tending to cause nausea,” then finally “cloying” or “wearisome from excess or repetition.” Another group of meanings, possibly derived from the “nauseous” usage, included “foul-smelling” and “repulsive.” These meanings are all obsolete in modern English. The more abstract meaning “aesthetically, morally, or generally offensive” remains in the dictionary, as does “exceeding the bounds of good taste” or “overdone.”

When Samuel Johnson, working in England, made his entry for fulsome in his famous 1755 dictionary, he recorded only the meanings “nauseous; offensive” and “of a rank and odious smell.” Noah Webster’s entry is very similar in his 1828 American Dictionary, but he added a curious note:

These are the English definitions of fulsome, but I have never witnessed such applications of the word in the United States. It seems that full and foul are radically the same word, the primary sense of which is stuffed, crowded, from the sense of putting on or in. In the United States, the compound fullsome takes its signification from full, in the sense of cloying or satiating, and in England, fulsome takes its predominant sense from foulness.

Webster’s assertion that full and foul share etymological roots is incorrect. Full comes from the Old English word that was spelled the same way, whereas foul comes from the Old English word fūl, meaning “rotten.” However, Webster adds an entry for fullsome:

Gross; disgusting by plainness, grossness or excess; as fullsome flattery or praise.

Webster created an entry for a different word when he should have simply added a definition of fulsome. The fact that neither Johnson nor Webster included the oldest meaning of the word (“copious”) shows that it had fallen from use during their lifetimes, and so by the 19th century it was established as a literary term chiefly expressing disapproval of excessive and obsequious praise and flattery—exactly as Webster had defined it.

But in the 20th century, just in time to confuse us all, the word’s “copious” meaning came back into use, doubtless by association with its etymological relative full, an adjective that usually has positive connotations. The problem is, this revival was missed by lexicographers in the first decades of the century, so that the “copious” meaning continued to be labelled obsolete until 1961. The result is that fulsome is now used with positive or neutral connotations at least as often as with negative connotations, but that many people consider the “copious” meaning to be an error (even though it is the etymologically purest use of the word).

The result of this muddy history is muddied meanings. Even though full is usually a positive word, fulsome has pejorative connotations in phrases like fulsome praise, where it is usually taken to mean “effusive, excessive, or insincere praise.” A phrase like a fulsome apology is likely to be ambiguous if what is intended is “a complete apology.” We suggest that you use caution when using fulsome in a nonpejorative way: make sure your context is unambiguous, or you may have to issue a full apology.



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