What you need to know if you ain’t got time/inclination to read any further:
- fulsome praise, apologies, tributes and dedications might be a) insincere and over the top or b) sincere and heartfelt. A (probable) minority of people – purists – think that only a) is correct.
- Because of these two (overlapping) meanings, the word is potentially ambiguous and best avoided. It is what is known as a ‘skunked’ term. For the negative you could try unctuous, gushing, overdone, extravagant, insincere, over the top and fawning. For the positive you could do worse than effusive, generous, liberal, glowing, lavish, sincere, heartfelt and enthusiastic according to the noun in question.
- Fulsome also means ‘abundant, plentiful’ and ‘full and plump, fleshy’, the latter referring to people. These are two meanings that were revived in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries respectively and are still going strong.
- Some people also object to the use of fulsome in such contexts when full would seemingly do just as well.
- Examples of this are: ‘In recent months officials working on Bradford’s bid have been privately worried that Leeds might fail to offer its fulsome backing’, and ‘I agree with Dawkins that a fulsome explanation of phenomena, however difficult to comprehend, confers satisfaction, without necessarily detracting from natural beauty.’
3. The word is less frequent (per million words) in US English than in British, Australian or NZ varieties.
We are not unpeeved!
‘I wish people would stop saying “fulsome” to be fancy’ came the tweet de coeur from the excellent begetter of the Twitter account @grammartable on 2 February 2020.
Her complaint raises the obvious question, which is the ‘fancy’ use? Looking into history is no help because trying to pin down fulsome’s true meaning is like trying to nail jelly to the wall – apart from being an instance of the etymological fallacy.
In a nutshell, the question is, if someone bestows fulsome praise on you or anyone, are they being puppy-like in their enthusiasm and sincere in what they say, or are they being two-faced and speaking with forked tongue and you should trust them as much as you would trust a promise by Putin to give the Crimea back (I think I’ve used up my cliché allowance for today.)
Having started out in life full of innocent promise, fulsome for a long time thereafter laboured under the burden of negative meanings being heaped upon it, such as ‘morally reprehensible, obnoxious’, or ‘sexually unrestrained, unchaste, lascivious’ or ‘difficult to digest, cloying’ or ‘sickly-sweet’ or ‘physically disgusting; filthy, dirty, foul, loathsome.’
Not the kind of word you’d like to introduce to your mother, then.
In particular, if in modern times you described the praise heaped on someone as fulsome, in your view it was phony, fake, sarcastic, ironic. That’s supposedly clear from these OED examples (and the OED definition at the end of the blog).
How can you spot sincerity on the page?
‘It’s been a great pleasure to meet you. I’ve been a fan of yours for many years.’ He hoped it didn’t sound meaninglessly fulsome.
S. Brett, Comedian Dies iii. 33, 1979
A bit fulsome, perhaps, but one easily forgives any over-appreciation of a kindness.
F. Kingsland, Etiquette for All Occasions iii. 55, 1901
They [sc. retired EU commissioners] are free to lavish fulsome praise on the EU and all its works whenever they wish without ever having to mention that it is paying them up to £75,000 a year.
The Collins Cobuild dictionary for learners of English hits the nail on the head for that meaning:
If you describe expressions of praise, apology, or gratitude as fulsome, you disapprove of them because they are exaggerated and elaborate, so that they sound insincere.
But hang on a cotton-picking moment.
Nobody looking at those contexts who had no previous contextual knowledge of the word could suss the insincerity out, could they? They could gaily replace fulsome with enthusiastic or lavish and the apparent meaning would not change one iota.
There’s a whole tone of voice/tongue-in-cheek aspect here that does not emerge when the word is on paper or on the screen.
For once, folk etymology is right
Just take a look at the shape of the word and you can see what’s going to happen. Any folk analysis of it would break it down into full and the suffix –some as in handsome, wholesome, lissom, winsome and so forth.
And, well, folks, that analysis is correct, as it happens. Back in the thirteenth century (1200–) it came about by a merger of full + some and meant ‘abundant’ in a good way (see the OED definitions at the end).
Thereafter, over the course of many centuries it acquired – and sometimes lost – generally unsavoury meanings, one of which is the one under discussion. The ‘oh, don’t try to butter me up’ meaning first appears in Ben Jonson’s work in 1602. His and the following quotation make it much clearer through context than the examples already quoted that fulsome is a bad thing.
In sinceritie, if you be thus fulsome to me in euery thing, I’le be diuorc’t; Gods my body!
B. Jonson, Poetaster ii. i. sig. C, 1602
I never heard anything so fulsome from the mouth of man; and found my self…impatient of such filthy stuff.
S. Patrick, Parable of Pilgrim 199, 1665
What do the usage pundits pundit?
This connotation was recognised and widely used, it seems, until the last century. Fowler in 1926 and Gowers in Fowler 2 in 1965 mentioned the pronunciation, nothing else.
By 1996, however, Burchfield in Fowler 3 was worried enough to opine: ‘An age-old semantic process, in which a word loses its depreciatory element, is gaining a new recruit. The process seems to be proceeding more swiftly in AmE than in BrE and to be more common among public speakers and journalists than in other quarters, to judge from the evidence I have seen.’
Gadzooks! Those American journalists destroying our language yet again! And note the militaristic ‘recruit’ obeying the conceptual metaphor ENGLISH IS A FORTRESS TO BE DEFENDED AGAINST AN ATTACKING ARMY.
Burchfield was referring to a process known technically as ‘melioration’, whereby a word is allowed to rise from the naughty stool it has been sitting on and rejoin the rest of the class, its head held high.
But, as I’ve said, if you didn’t know the word was insincere you wouldn’t know it was insincere, if you see what I mean.
The earliest OED citation for the positive meaning – and the date is probably reliable as this is OED3 – is from 1922:
Why did you write that and fill it with so much fulsome expression of regard and love?
People of State of New York against Thomas J. Ryan: Case on Appeal (Court of Appeals, State of N.Y.) 168
Oh, those Americans! Destroying the language but then peeving about it.
And it turns out that fussing about the true meaning is a very American thang. According to the unimpeachable Merriam-Webster Concise Dictionary of English Usage, laments started to be heard in the 1950s ‘in the wake’ of the word’s increasing use. Moreover, part of the insistence that the word is negative stems from definitions in M-W dictionaries. Those M-W lexicographers! Mischief- makers, every one.
M-W (2002) do, however, say that ‘The watchword obviously must be care’ and ‘If you do use the nonpejorative senses, make sure your context is unambiguous.’
Oddly, given that, it is less frequent in my 2014 corpus and the Corpus of Global Web-Based English in US usage than in British, Australian or NZ English.
Here are a few contexts from the corpus I use (2014). They suggest, I submit, how impossible it often is to decide whether fulsome is negative or positive even when surrounding context is included.
She added: ‘I have no desire whatsoever for a leadership contest but if there were to be one and Charles to be a contender, he would have my wholehearted and very vocal support.’ Elsewhere in the Lib-Dem group in Brussels, however, there was less fulsome praise for the leader.
Nowadays, there’s a tendency to honour notable people during their own lifetime which is great. There isn’t much point in doing it when they’re dead and not around to hear the fulsome praise being heaped on them.
He has not quite offered a fulsome apology, but I will. In All the First Minister’s Men I predicted a cost in excess of £300m, a wild underestimate.
[Fulsome here, though, probably comes close to being simply ‘a full apology’.]
He prefaced it with a long and fulsome forty-seven page dedication to Princess Caroline, given over mainly to a denunciation of the evils of female education.
Dixit et pronuntiavit OED
I’ll leave the last word to the OED. Note what it says about meanings 5 a. and b.
It defines the ‘full, copious’ meaning as
1. a. Characterized by being full of some commodity or material; abundant, plentiful; providing a copious supply, rich; (in later use also) complete, comprehensive.
Revived in the 19th century.
The meticulous documentation in learned and fulsome footnotes.
Speculum 30 498, 1955
Fullsome breakfasts, luxuriant Laura Ashley bedrooms and Joan’s welcoming smiles are all-inclusive.
Beautiful Brit. Columbia Fall (Insert) 24, 1993
The spelling in the last example for the category (above) shows the (folk) etymology of the word in action
1. b. Chiefly of a person or (a part of) the body: full and plump; fleshy, corpulent; oversized, overfed; (in later use) full-figured; voluptuous. Also in extended use.
Revived in the 20th century.
The queen is by a fire with a rather fulsome lady-in-waiting, yarning wool.
R. Curtis & R. Atkinson in R. Curtis et al., Black-Adder (1998) 21/1 (stage direct.), 1983
It was still full of those heavy, fulsome, towering trees.
R. Mabey, Flora Britannica 58/2, 1996
His thousands of smiling, fulsome ladies are just that—nude rather than naked.
Vanity Fair Nov. 164, 2004
5. Of language or behaviour, or of a person with regard to this.
a. Offensive or objectionable owing to excess or lack of moderation; esp. excessively effusive or complimentary; too lavish, overdone.
In recent use, sometimes distinguished from sense A. 5b only by mildly pejorative overtones: in many 20th century examples, it is difficult to be certain whether the older critical sense or a neutral or even positive sense is intended. (Underlining mine.)
b. Unrestrained, exuberant; effusive; lavish; wholehearted.
This use probably developed from sense A. 5a partly as a result of the ambiguity of expressions such as fulsome praise, in which the speaker’s or writer’s attitude may be taken as neutral or even positive rather than critical; see also etymological note. It has been censured by writers on usage, but is now well established. Cf. also sense A. 1a.