Should you bask in “fulsome praise” or shun it? When a reader asked me to look into the history of fulsome, the more research I did, the more confused I became. This word has so many distinct, sometimes contradictory senses that we might ask not “What does it mean?” but rather “Does it mean anything at all?”
Fulsome was used in several different ways from the get-go, and has only acquired more flexibility since. Though it can hold its head high among the fanciest of SAT words, it had humble beginnings, deriving from one of the most common words in English, full, plus the suffix -some, which also gave us awesome, lonesome, and handsome. This suffix signifies “characterized by a (specified) thing, quality, state, or action,” according to Merriam-Webster, and full means, well, “full.” Fulsome, then, etymologically speaking, is “characterized by fullness, or being full.”
When it first appeared in the mid-13th century, fulsome usually had a positive connotation. Its primary sense was “plentiful ... copious,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. “Fulsome fields” contained an abundance of wheat; a “fulsome well” had lots of water. It could also indicate that a person was nicely “full and plump” – “fulsome, fair [beautiful], and fresh” was the opposite of “lean, pale … and withered.”
Yet even back then it could have negative connotations as well. It sometimes referred to things that were morally reprehensible – full of wickedness – as when a 15th-century manuscript described King Arthur battling “the fulsomest freak that was ever formed,” a giant who murders children. Shakespeare used it to mean “lewd.” For other writers it stood in for “tedious,” or “difficult to digest” (“fulsome meat”), or “sickly-sweet” (“fulsome honey”), or “dirty” (“fulsome clay”), or “foul-smelling” (“fulsome breath”).
By the 16th century, negative uses predominated and the word was often written foulsome for emphasis. Around this time, too, it developed the meaning beloved by language purists today: “excessively complimentary or flattering.” From 1600 to 1900, if you heard “fulsome praise” or a “fulsome apology,” it was hyperbolic and probably insincere.
Language is always changing, though, and fulsome is going back to its roots. Now it is once again used positively, and “fulsome praise” is usually generous and sincere. Without context, though, it is impossible to know for sure. It is even harder to interpret fulsome when it is used in non-praise-related situations.
If I had my way, we would abandon all its other uses and reserve fulsome for “excessively complimentary.” While we can say “dirty” or “generous” many different ways, no other word so perfectly captures the tone and content of much contemporary discourse.