Aug 25, 2017

Wordology, Fulsome

By far, its most common use is in the expression “fulsome praise,” which would seem like a good thing. The word sounds positive, drawing mental associations to “full” and “wholesome.” At one point, this was exactly what the word meant.

Then Samuel Johnson, considered the father of the English dictionary came along. He and Noah Webster thought that the word “fulsome,” which mostly held a positive connotation for hundreds of years (meaning “copious” or “abundant”), drew its roots from the word “foul” and “fulsome” gained its negative connotation. Many have fought and continue to fight for its original use, even as far back as 1868.

The word simultaneously retains both definitions, and even former president Barack Obama used the word in its much older, positive sense. He came under some scrutiny for that and for the fact that he misused “enormity.” It is another word that may create an entirely new definition, because people incorrectly associate it with size.

“Fulsome praise” usually means “disgustingly over-the-top and insincere praise, but some have assumed its meaning to be more positive.