Wordwatch Towers

A plain language guide to punctuation, grammar and writing well.

Fulsome – what does it actually mean?

with 11 comments

A British Eurostar set approaching Chambéry in...
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Eurostar is not currently flavour of the day among travellers trying to get away for Christmas amid train chaos. A caller to a BBC Radio 4 phone-in programme just said that the company’s apologies should have been more ‘fulsome’.

Fulsome. There’s a word I always avoid. Why? Because you can never be sure what is actually meant by it.

In the example above, the caller obviously meant that the company’s apologies should have been more ‘abundant’ — which was the word’s original meaning when it was first used in the 13th century.

However, ambiguity now reigns. The meaning of the word has changed over the centuries, and it can be used to mean ‘insincere’ or ‘excessively flattering’. So if you receive ‘fulsome praise’ you won’t know whether or not to be pleased.

Here’s what Oxford Dictionaries has to say on this.

More commonly confused words

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Written by Wordwatch

22/12/2009 at 1:03 pm

11 Responses

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  1. I agree: skunked. Same with “noisome.”

    Michael Farrell

    10/01/2010 at 2:51 am

    • ‘Noisome’ — that’s an interesting one. Do you mean people use it to describe ‘noisy’ people rather than an unpleasant smell or something annoying?

      Deborah

      10/01/2010 at 9:16 am

  2. Yup, all the bl-dy time. Utterly skunked here.

    Michael Farrell

    10/01/2010 at 6:02 pm

    • I like ‘skunked’ — not a word I’ve heard used here!

      Deborah

      10/01/2010 at 6:08 pm

      • Like clothes that have been blessed by a skunk, you can’t use such words anymore and must toss them. My dictionary doesn’t have that exact definition; instead, it has (informal trans. v.) to be utterly defeated, as in sports; (dated) to fail to pay a bill or creditor. My hero B. Garner uses it a lot for, well, skunked words.

        Michael Farrell

        15/01/2010 at 4:53 am

        • Interesting — thanks for that.

          Deborah

          15/01/2010 at 8:16 am

  3. I just found this funny example in Fowler’s (likely misused by association with “handsome” and “wholesome”): “I am warned that these particular cassocks will only fit either the exceptionally petite or the handsomely fulsome.” (Daily Tel., 1985)

    Michael Farrell

    14/02/2010 at 6:45 pm

    • …perhaps the word can be reclaimed after all and used to mean something completely different! Thanks for that.

      Deborah

      14/02/2010 at 7:05 pm

  4. Why not? It sure has been batted around for the last 800 years. And the word “full” is right THERE.

    Michael Farrell

    14/02/2010 at 7:20 pm

  5. Here’s a great comment by Pat O’Conner: ” ‘Noisome’ and ‘noisy’ are as different as your nose and your ear.” hahaha (“Woe Is I,” p. 86.)

    Michael Farrell

    17/02/2010 at 6:09 pm

    • That’s brilliant. Thanks, Michael.

      Deborah

      17/02/2010 at 6:21 pm


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