Certain words, like guilty deeds, haunt us. Such is fulsome. After almost twenty-five years working for newspapers, I took a job writing about science for a university in upstate New York. The accompanying abrupt shift in style surprised me. After filing my first story, my editor thanked me, said it was solid and complete, and added, “Do you think you could make it a little more . . .,” and she paused, casting about for le mot juste: “Could you make it more fulsome?” All my life I had thought of fulsome as a term of opprobrium, never a quality I could prize, especially in prose. I had much to learn.
Years later I wrote to the late D.G. Myers, asking what he thought of D. Keith Mano, the novelist and onetime columnist for the National Review. David wrote back: “Too fulsome for my taste.” I tried reading Mano’s Take Five (1982) and confirmed David’s judgment. Too rich, too excessive, too show-offy. The word arrived again recently when I came upon a 1947 review of Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano in which Jacques Barzun said the novel “strikes me as fulsome and fictitious,” an accurate assessment.
Fulsome has a twisty and contradictory history of usage, according to the OED – hardly an unusual phenomenon in English, which seldom prizes consistency. The earliest citation in the first entry dates from 1325; the latest, 1993. Here is the definition: “characterized by being full of some commodity or material; abundant, plentiful; providing a copious supply, rich.” In other words, a good thing. The next entry, in use from the fifteenth to the twentieth century, is mostly a good thing: “chiefly of a person or (a part of) the body: full and plump; fleshy, corpulent; oversized, overfed; (in later use) full-figured; voluptuous.” In other words, zaftig, not a universal taste.
The word takes on a less positive meaning beginning late in the fourteenth century: “offending against accepted standards of morality or taste; morally reprehensible, obnoxious, deplorable.” And still later: “sexually unrestrained, unchaste, lascivious; bawdy, lewd.” What a marvelous mutation, and it makes perfect sense. Of food it comes to mean “coarse, heavy, filling; difficult to digest, cloying.” And the evolution continues: “physically disgusting; filthy, dirty, foul, loathsome” and “offensive to the sense of smell, foul-smelling, rank.” One of the privileges of being a native English speaker is having so rich and suggestive a word at our disposal, one with both harsh and comic potential.
Finally, we reach the meanings most of us recognize: “offensive or objectionable owing to excess or lack of moderation; esp. excessively effusive or complimentary; too lavish, overdone” (brown-nosing, ass-kissing, sycophantic) and “unrestrained, exuberant; effusive; lavish; wholehearted.” Fulsome is probably a word best used comically or not at all. Even its sound is funny, a little: full + some = a contradiction ripe for humor. In The King’s English: A Guide to Modern Usage (1997), Kingsley Amis, speaking from the grave, suggests otherwise:
“This once useful word meant `disgustingly excessive, cloying’ as applied to compliments, apologies, etc.; Roget lists it between gushing and stagy. Undereducated persons, perhaps foggily supposing fulsome to be a posh form of full (from which it does descend), have in recent years taken to using it to mean `ample’ or possibly `cordial.’ Not to be used henceforth by careful writers.”