Put simply, the adjective full means "complete" or "containing all that is possible," while the adjective fulsome means "offensive" or "insincere." And for over a century, most usage guides have encouraged us to draw this clear distinction between the two words. For example, The Associated Press Stylebook insists that fulsome means "disgustingly excessive" and should not be used "to mean lavish or profuse." Similarly, The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage defines fulsome as "not just abundant but offensively excessive."
But as the usage notes below indicate, the "true" meaning of fulsome remains ambiguous and controversial.
- "Satisfaction lies in the effort, not in the attainment, full effort is full victory." (Mahatma Gandhi)
- "A life spent in constant labor is a life wasted, save a man be such a fool as to regard a fulsome obituary notice as ample reward." (George Jean Nathan)
- "David Plouffe expressed his delight at the Democrat’s financial advantage in these words: 'If we want to go play in a state like Georgia--TV advertising, staff, mail--in the most fulsome way, we’ll be able to do that.'
"That sent a squeaky-blackboard tremor through many English teachers long dismayed by an intolerable misusage. On his word choice, Plouffe goofed. Fulsome does not mean 'full.' Nor does it mean 'complete, well developed' or other pleasing synonyms of abundance. On the contrary, the adjective is used not in a compliment, but in an insult, meaning 'excessive.' Its frequent use in 'fulsome praise' gives that phrase the meaning of 'cloying, unctuous, obsequious flattery.'
"Though loosey-goosey usagists may accept the turning of the word’s meaning on its head, most of us draw the line at such surrender to error. Fulsome is to 'full' what noisome is to 'noisy'; a word that sounds the same but means something quite different. Noisome, rooted in Old French for 'annoying,' means 'smelly,' and fulsome means 'too much.' If you’re on the side of clarity, hold that line."
(William Safire, "Fist Bump," The New York Times Magazine, July 6, 2008)
- "Fulsome is often used to mean 'offensively flattering or insincere'; But the word is also used, particularly in the expression fulsome praise, to mean simply 'abundant,' without any implication of excess or insincerity. This usage is etymologically justified but may invite misunderstandings in contexts in which a deprecatory interpretation could be made. The sentence I offer you my most fulsome apologies may raise an eyebrow, where the use of an adjective like full or abundant would leave no room for doubt as to the sincerity of the speaker's intentions."
(The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th ed., 2000)
- "The watchword obviously must be care. If you are tempted to use fulsome, remember that it is quite likely to be misunderstood by both the innocent reader and the gimlet-eyed purist unless your context makes your intended meaning abundantly clear. . . .
"Let's try to sum this up. Fulsome is probably more commonly used today than it has been at any time since the end of the 17th century. Its most common use is in mildly depreciatory contexts, but keep in mind that several nonpejorative meanings, one limited to music, are still current.
"Most usage commentators and handbooks are still measuring correct usage by looking back to the definition of 1909. Modern lexicography will eventually catch up with present-day use, and the commentators, one hopes, will soften their remarks. . . .
"If you do use the nonpejorative senses, make sure your context is unambiguous."
(Merriam-Webster's Concise Dictionary of English Usage, Merriam-Webster, 2002)
- "Fulsome is formed from the words full and some, and originally had no bad connotations at all. But, probably because the first syllable was ignorantly associated with the word foul--because both foul and the first syllable of fulsome were once pronounced alike--fulsome began to pick up other meanings.
"The meaning of 'simple abundance' lasted from the first appearance of the word (c. 1250) till Elizabethan times (last OED citation is 1583). In the meantime, the word picked up and lost other meanings: 'fat, overgrown' (1340-1768); 'overfed' (1642-18003); 'gross and satiating' (1410-1770); 'wearisome from excess of repetition' (1531-1709); 'offensive to the taste of smell' (1583-1725); 'morally foul, obscene' (1604-1726); and finally, 'gross or excessive, offensive to good taste like flattery' (1663 to the present).
"What a spectacular career! What a wonderful word! It should please all our many purists that after 700 years of wayward use, and compulsive fiddling, fulsome is finally returning to its original and etymologically correct meaning, that is, if our purists knew anything about language history or etymology."
(Jim Quinn, American Tongue and Cheek: A Populist Guide to Our Language, Pantheon Books, 1972)
Practice:(a) "There cannot be a crisis next week. My schedule is already _____." (Henry Kissinger)
(b) "Morris read through the letter. Was it a shade too _____? No, that was another law of academic life: it is impossible to be excessive in flattery of one's peers." (David Lodge)