the Irish for rights

Fulsome pedantry

OED cover, via the OUP websiteYesterday, one Irish politician called on another to make an apology to the Irish people. This would just be another forgettable eddy in a political coffee cup were it not for the fact that the demand was for a “fulsome” apology. Can this be right?

The Oxford English Dictionary (pictured left) in its entry (sub req’d) for “fulsome” lists six various obsolete usages (in which it simply means abundant or generous) and then gives the following modern definition of that word:

Of language, style, behaviour, etc.: Offensive to good taste; esp. offending from excess or want of measure or from being ‘over-done’. Now chiefly used in reference to gross or excessive flattery, over-demonstrative affection, or the like.

As a note to the definition of “fulsome” in the Compact Oxford English Dictionary Online (no sub req’d) makes clear:

Although the earliest sense of fulsome was ‘abundant’, this is now regarded by many as incorrect; the correct meaning today is said to be ‘excessively flattering’. This gives rise to ambiguity: the possibility that while for one speaker fulsome praise will be a genuine compliment, for others it will be interpreted as an insult.

Merriam-Webster Online (no sub req’d) says that the meaning of the word “fulsome” became a point of dispute when the largely positive meanings

thought to be obsolete in the 19th century, began to be revived in the 20th. The dispute was exacerbated by the fact that the large dictionaries of the first half of the century missed the beginnings of the revival. … [The positive sense] has not only been revived but has spread in its application and continues to do so. The chief danger for the user of fulsome is ambiguity. Unless the context is made very clear, the reader or hearer cannot be sure whether such an expression as “fulsome praise” is meant in [the positive or negative sense] …

This revival has certainly been missed by the OED. I suspect that this is because it is not so much a revival of an older meaning as a straightforward and recent error in supposing that “fulsome” is just a grander word for “full” and thus simply means copious. For that reason most style guides that address the issue deprecate the positive usage.

I can’t imagine that Irish politicians are demanding insincere apologies of each other; I also doubt that they are knowingly in the vanguard of an incipient revival of the older positive usages; I rather suspect that – with some knowledgeable exceptions – they have fallen into the common error of using “fulsome” as a fancy word for “full”. However, in this mistake, they are in good company. In Canada earlier this year, as reported by the Globe and Mail, a lawyer grilling former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney over bribery allegations

suggested that he had not been “fulsome” in his responses. Rather than questioning what the lawyer meant by this adjective, Mulroney just denied whatever the accusation was. “I am being fulsome, and truthful,” …

Indeed, in the New York Times last year, William Safire took President Obama to task for using “fulsome” in this way and for other similar solecisms. His advice is, as always, worth following:

Never use a word sure to sow confusion.

Volokh concurs. When it comes to “fulsome”, then, to avoid common error and unnecessary confusion, we should just say no. If those who have been guilty of its sloppy use (or even of its fulsome misuse) wish to apologise for this mistake, there is only one question: will the apology be fulsome?

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10 Responses to “Fulsome pedantry”

  1. David Malone says:

    Sometimes these tricky words can be helpful – you can always thank someone for a sabulous meal…

  2. Stan Carey says:

    This is why Garner called fulsome a ‘skunked term’ (in A Dictionary of Modern American Usage). The OED entry shows how semantically unstable it has been, but in Ireland you can be assured that *cough* at the end of the day the reality is that we would be looking at a way to – as you put it, Eoin – make a plain term sound fancy. Thus full or very full becomes fulsome.

    This dubious sense of fulsome seems especially common as an adjunct to praise, but a lengthy entry in Merriam-Webster’s usage dictionary shows the impressive variety (or muddle) of its historical usage – and its relatively recent amelioration, including Reagan’s “very fulsome apology from the President of Iraq”.

    Robert Burchfield (in Fowler’s 3rd) concludes that “the outcome of the battle between [the two opposing senses] will doubtless not emerge until the 21C. Meanwhile everyone is advised to restrict the word to its 1663 meaning.”

  3. This is one of those words that now appears to be used incorrectly more often than correctly. It is used to give the impression of a wide vocubulary but has the opposite effect. The common usage, I think, fits in with a range of made-up words; why plain English can’t be used isn’t clear.

  4. For the record, I routinely correct copy in which fulsome appears, replacing it with ‘wholehearted’, ‘sincere’ etc.
    The trouble comes when it appears in a quotation. It’s one thing to correct a straight report, something else to change what someone said, even if they were wrong.

  5. Nick says:

    I initially had fulsome praise for your post, but figured just plain old praise would suffice.

    But seriously, it is interesting how words can have contradicting meanings. I’m pretty suer I never would have dug in to a word such as “fulsome” had it not been for this post.


  6. rene says:

    You wouldn’t happen to be talking about […*] now, would you? I think I remember him using the word in one of his speeches. I giggled a little bit when I heard him say it and I wondered why his speech writer decided to use that word.

    [* I’ve edited the name out here: E0D]

  7. Markus Walsh says:

    I’m pretty sure I’ve only ever heard fulsome used incorrectly. To be honest, I also thought it meant for something to be full. I think it’s a bit of a runaway error. Basically a meme now.

  8. Rich says:

    I very rarely hear/see the word “fulsome” or “pedantry” used, let alone together. Nicely done.

  9. Hah! I think we’ve all be guilty at one time or another of using words we don’t quite know the meaning of. It’s obviously a tad embarrassing when you’re called out on it, but in the case of fulsome, correcting its usage sounds like a losing battle!

    It’s just one of those words now that you have to judge from the context it’s used in. It could mean one thing, or the opposite!

  10. […] argued that a wholehearted (he said “fulsome”, but I think that word was inappropriate in that context) embrace of online education will meet many of the current challenges. For example, […]

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Me in a hatHi there! Thanks for dropping by. I’m Eoin O’Dell, and this is my blog: Cearta.ie – the Irish for rights.

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