Mind your language

Should we just stop using ‘fulsome’?

The ‘correct’ usage is used by hardly anyone. But it makes the common usage impossible too

29 October 2015

9:00 AM

29 October 2015

9:00 AM

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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  • Sean Grainger

    This goes back to last week. Francine Stock showed up on Newsnight about four decades ago. Maybe five. It was obvious in the first three seconds she wasn’t up to the job. But they stuck with her for quite a few weeks until she became too embarrassing even for the corp. But said corp kept her on — that’s as a total failure — at your expense until she re-emerged on radio as a not very good etc etc. Yet another argument for scrapping licence fee.

  • polistra24

    I don’t think noisome has gone literal yet. In all the instances that I can determine by context, it clearly means annoying or offensive, not noisy. Maybe the rhyme with anNOYing keeps it more stable than fulsome.

  • Woman In White

    I fulsomely abhor an intellectual attitude that is founded on the demonstrably false notion that all rarefied vocabulary should should consist of pure monosemics.

  • Kennybhoy

    Abusus non tollit usum.