It’s funny that two much misused words end in —some: fulsome and noisome. Noisome is the less often used at all, and then usually as though it meant noisy. There is a word noisesome that does mean noisy, coined 80 years ago, but noisome has meant ‘unpleasant’ or ‘offensive’, especially ‘smelly’, for 400 years or more.
Of the words ending some that were in use before the Conquest, only three remain: winsome, lovesome and longsome (meaning ‘slow’ or ‘tedious’) and I’m not sure that the last really is still used. The case is different with fulsome, which has been around since the 14th century. It is hardly ever used correctly. In which case, you may ask, has its meaning now changed?
An obsolete meaning of fulsome was ‘abundant’ ‘plentiful’. Yet I saw in a newspaper recently a reference to a flourishing tree that was ‘for a dwarf patio tree, remarkably fulsome’. I suspect that the writer had no clear notion of what fulsome means, and went by its sound, just as most people now use lumpen to mean ‘lumpy’, and not ‘ragged’ as its German original dictates. In another paper, I found mention of someone salivating fulsomely, again with that suggestion of abundance.
Most commonly fulsome is paired with tribute, praise or nouns of similar meaning. The Scots, we read, were ‘accorded a long and fulsome salute by the Tartan Army’, or a nanny’s professional references were ‘fulsome in her praise’. Naturally hobby-pedants jump upon such examples as incompatible with the word’s true meanings of ‘offending from excess or want of measure’ or ‘disgusting, repulsive, odious’. Even the pedants do not usually try to foist upon the word a meaning with which Shakespeare was familiar, ‘filthy, obscene’, as poor old Othello uses it, before becoming incoherent with rage: ‘Lie with her — that’s fulsome. Handkerchief — confessions — handkerchief!’
The upshot is that it is hard to employ fulsome in the conventionally approved sense without throwing out hints that you know what it really means: ‘Mr Xi was showered with fulsome praise — disgusting.’ But it’s easier not to use it at all, which concedes the ground entirely to the misusers. That could soon seal the word’s fate.
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