FROM ABOUT THAT 'FULSOME' PRAISE By James J. Kilpatrick
Nicholas Kristof, a columnist for The New York Times, was in Iran a year ago. He found the people "exceptionally friendly and fulsome in their praise for the United States." After Ronald Reagan died last summer, The Washington Post reported that "fulsome tributes continue to engulf TV." At about the same time, a BBC reporter told us that "the Sharon plan has the fulsome endorsement of George W. Bush."
It is a good guess that the writers used "fulsome" to mean "abundant," or "copious" or "unstinting." Merriam-Webster's 11th Collegiate (2003) confirms that popular usage. Its editors say the primary definition of "fulsome" today is "generous in amount," or "full and well developed."
Aaargh! Until quite recently, "fulsome" had a very different primary meaning, e.g.:
American Heritage, 1993: "offensively flattering or insincere; offensive to the taste or sensibilities."
Oxford American (1999): "disgusting by excess of flattery, servility, excessive, cloying."
Random House Collegiate (1997): "excessive, overdone, sickening."
Encarta (1999): "fawning to the point of being offensive."
We may be witnessing in "fulsome" an unusual process of linguistic reversion. When "fulsome" appeared early in the 13th century, it meant exactly what Merriam-Webster says its primary meaning is today -- abundant, generous, lavish. There were no offensive implications of insincerity. A fulsome banquet began with soup and ended 12 courses later with six desserts and indigestion.
In his "Modern American Usage," Bryan Garner has a note on words that undergo metamorphosis in reverse: They change from butterflies to caterpillars. The process may take 10 years or a hundred, but it is constantly going on -- and it provokes constant disagreement among writers, editors and lexicographers.
Garner identifies two contentious schools. The first comprises language aficionados and hard-core purists who insist upon traditional use. The other comprises linguistic liberals and those who don't concern themselves much with language. Garner adds morosely, "As time goes by, Group One dwindles; meanwhile, Group Two swells."