John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and other manifestations of human frailty. Comments welcome. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, and now at

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Fulsome is as fulsome does

Commenting on this morning’s post, “Be careful out there,” Marisa Birns wrote:

I remember when fulsome was not the best word to use with “praise”.

So do I.

I remember attending a conference some years back at which an Episcopal priest repeatedly used fulsome to mean lavish. Ever generous with advice, I took him aside privately and apprised him of the traditional meaning, “disgustingly excessive.” Apparently in the laying-on of hands in the Apostolic Succession the reverend clergy are granted some tincture of the divine omniscience, because he did not utter another word to me for the rest of the conference.

(Reminder to editors: Don’t expect gratitude.)

Of course, if you were to dig around in the history of the language, you would discover that in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the word meant abundant or full, later plump or well-fed. It was in the seventeenth century that the word took on the sense of excessiveness and offensiveness, and now turning full circle to its earliest sense.

Bryan Garner describes its current status as a “skunked” term, one best to avoid because someone will think you in error no matter which meaning you intend.   



  1. Agreed. I also follow the advice of the AP Stylebook (2007, page 102) — not always a good idea.

  2. "Fulsome" is a slippery word. I used it impulsively in an e-mail a couple of weeks ago, with reference to a dentist who gave a piano recital, supposing that her own piano "must have a fulsome smile." I must have been thinking simultaneously of "handsome" and "refulgent," because I certainly didn't mean what I later found in the dictionary. Ah, hindsight! Anyway, you make me feel better.

  3. Along these lines, I was wondering if I am only one who cares when unique is modified as in "really unique".