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The Story Behind "Fulsome"

Some words travel a winding path to their meanings, causing language users confusion over what they actually mean. A word whose definition or usage is so hotly contested that it never fails to draw attention to itself is called a skunked term. It may be that language users will resolve the problem over time, but until then, what's a writer to do? Today, the story behind fulsome and what to do with this stinky term.

The adjective fulsome can be defined as "unpleasantly and excessively suave or ingratiating in manner or speech." Historically, it has also meant "disgusting or offensive," or "copious or abundant."

Fulsome dates to the 1200s, when its components (ful + som) gave it the meaning "abundant, full," says the Online Etymology Dictionary. By the mid-1300s, it had come to mean "plump, well-fed." It morphed again in the 1600s to mean "overgrown, overfed" and "offensive to taste or good manners," a meaning it retains today.

In 1828, Noah Webster listed the only definition of fulsome in his dictionary as "disgusting or offensive," while The Oxford English Dictionary listed "excessively flattering" as the only current definition in 1897 — dating it to 1663 — labeling the others as obsolete.

Yet somewhere along the line, the original neutral meaning came back.

By the 1940s and 1950s, says Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage (MWDEU), there was an outcry against using fulsome to mean "abundant." Usage mavens began urging the "disgusting or offensive" use, some mistakenly referring to it as its traditional sense. But language speakers haven't listened.

Within the first 20 results on search for fulsome on the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA), we get three uses of the "excessively flattering" meaning, two uses of the "offensive" meaning, and 12 uses of the "abundant" meaning.

Sometimes, it's difficult to tell in context which meaning is intended, though the "abundant" meaning is usually clear. Garner's Modern American Usage notes that the "abundant" meaning is at stage 4 of its Language Change Index: "The form becomes virtually universal but is opposed on cogent grounds by a few linguistic stalwarts." Even so, Garner's prefers the "offensive" meaning and notes that the term is probably skunked. It advises avoiding the term at best and being extremely clear in the desired meaning at worst. MWDEU is in rare agreement with Garner's because of the possible misunderstanding of the term and the probable firestorm from its use.

My guess is that in a generation or three, fulsome will be full accepted and understood as meaning "abundant," whether or not the other meanings stick around. Until then, however, the wise writer should avoid the word when possible and should be crystal clear about the intended meaning when it must be used.

What definition do you have for fulsome? Do you receive criticism for it? Share your word story in the comments section!

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Erin Brenner is the founder of Right Touch Editing, a customizable editing service. She has been an editing professional for over 15 years and is sought after for her expertise in language mechanics. She works on a variety of media in all levels of editing. In addition, she provides bite-sized lessons to improve your writing on her blog The Writing Resource and is the editor of Copyediting.com, which offers advice and training for those who edit copy. Follow her on Twitter at @ebrenner or on Facebook. Click here to read more articles by Erin Brenner.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday February 22nd 2012, 1:26 PM
Comment by: David D. (Seattle, WA)
This funny word feels good in the mouth. One wants to think of the fulsome breasts of a zaftig woman. And yet, one knows that a regular use is likely to be of the fulsome stench of a pig pen. I therefore avoid using it but unhappily.
Wednesday February 22nd 2012, 2:01 PM
Comment by: Stuart the Maniac
Hew winsome, you lose some.
Thursday February 23rd 2012, 12:50 PM
Comment by: Janet D.
I always thought of fulsome in the greatly endowed wench sense but didn't know it in the stench sense, so I learned something here and will avoid the word unless I intend both meanings?
Friday February 24th 2012, 10:48 AM
Comment by: Michael Lydon (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
"Fulsome" does live in a ambiguous zone between praise and criticism. "Fulsome praise" does mean too much praise, but the sound of the word suggests full to the brim, and that sense sounds positive. I think I avoid the word just because I'm not sure of the meaning of the word and how listeners or readers will take it.
Saturday February 25th 2012, 1:07 PM
Comment by: Bruce H. (Arlington, VA)
I used it early in my corporate communications job (I mean, early...40 years ago!), intending it to mean something positive about my boss' explanation, which to me which complete, good, clear and therefore beneficial to his listeners. Afterwards, my boss' assistant came to my desk and let me know that fulsome was a stinky thing to say, not to mention dangerous to my corporate health. I've walked way around that word since, and wince when I hear it. (Hey, I love Stuart the Maniac's comment of Feb. 22; absolutely, right, and when hew lose some in the grammatical petunia patch, you can well be the lonesome onion.)
Sunday February 26th 2012, 9:00 PM
Comment by: begum F.Top 10 Commenter
Very funny.
Positive and negative meaning.
Thanks for choosing Fulsome for VT column.
Monday December 23rd 2013, 10:12 PM
Comment by: Kastiel (Jamaica)
I had no idea this word could be the subject of any controversy. To my ears, it so obviously connotes tasteful plumpness. Full-figured. Voluptuous. Buxom. Abundant, too, but I always thought that was a bit dated. If I dared, I suppose I could make it mean 'grossly overblown' or 'excessively profuse'/'rank'-and generally, I don't dare as it's hard to make an offence out of this charming (sulty, even) word. 'Offensive and disgusting'?! How, how, how? Fulsome just doesn't have that pejorative snap. It's nowhere near heavy-weights like 'crass', 'repuslive' and 'execrable'. And 'excessively suave or ingratiating'??? How, how how?! I can't make that link.
Monday January 6th 2014, 11:31 AM
Comment by: Erin B. (Haverhill, MA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Kastiel, I think that's one way word meanings change. If you're not familiar with one definition, you won't use it that way. If lots of people aren't familiar with that definition, lots of people won't use it and the definition falls out of favor. We have to use words to keep them.
Tuesday November 24th 2015, 1:25 PM
Comment by: Orielzinho (Argentina)
I just want to thank Erin Brenner for an extremely insightful article. Hope my praise does not some fulsome in the negative sense. Funny afterthought: words have of a life of their own, basically because they are the manifestation of our thoughts, which also have a life of their own...
Oriel, Buenos Aires, Argentina
Wednesday April 12th 2017, 10:05 AM
Comment by: Manav A. (India)
Thank you for sharing with us the non - fulsome article :P

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Bryan Garner discusses his Language Change Index.
"Nauseous" is a good example of a skunked term.
More skunked terms that no one can seem to agree on.