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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