Saturday, May 16, 2009

The Full Meaning of "Fulsome"

(Speaking of "cash" and "fulsome", this is Folsom Prison, made famous by Johnny Cash. Different spelling, different context).

The word "fulsome" has come up lately in much news and comment, for example here.

"Fulsome" is a very ambiguous and imprecise word that is best avoided in the legal realm. Its meanings range from “abundant" or "copious” or "comprehensive"on the one hand to “excessive” or “offensive” or "disgusting" or "insincerely lavish" on the other. Therefore, it ought to be used with great care, if at all, especially with a witness who is wont, at suitable times, to answer a question only in the most precise, limited and literal meaning that the witness can construe. Such a witness could respond to a request to provide a "fulsome" answer in quite different and not necessarily predictable ways, any or all of which may well fit the definition of "fulsome."

Here are two dictionary entries for "fulsome":

Merriam Webster:

Main Entry:







Middle English fulsom copious, cloying, from full + -som -some


13th century

1 a: characterized by abundance : copious fulsome detail — G. N. Shuster> <fulsome bird life. The feeder overcrowded — Maxine Kumin> b: generous in amount, extent, or spirit fulsome in praise of the plane's crew — Don Oliver> fulsome victory for the far left — Bruce Rothwell> fulsome, the farewells tender — Simon Gray> c: being full and well developed fulsome, limpid voice — Thor Eckert, Jr.>2: aesthetically, morally, or generally offensive <fulsome lies and nauseous flattery — William Congreve> fulsome rogue — George Villiers>3: exceeding the bounds of good taste : overdone fulsome chromium glitter of the escalators dominating the central hall — Lewis Mumford>4: excessively complimentary or flattering : effusive fulsome — A. J. Liebling>

ful·some·ly adverb

ful·some·ness noun

usage The senses shown above are the chief living senses of fulsome. Sense 2, which was a generalized term of disparagement in the late 17th century, is the least common of these. Fulsome became a point of dispute when sense 1, thought to be obsolete in the 19th century, began to be revived in the 20th. The dispute was exacerbated by the fact that the large dictionaries of the first half of the century missed the beginnings of the revival. Sense 1 has not only been revived but has spread in its application and continues to do so. The chief danger for the user of fulsome is ambiguity. Unless the context is made very clear, the reader or hearer cannot be sure whether such an expression as fulsome praise is meant in sense 1b or in sense 4.

Random House:

1. offensive to good taste, esp. as being excessive; overdone or gross: fulsome praise that embarrassed her deeply; fulsome décor.
2. disgusting; sickening; repulsive: a table heaped with fulsome mounds of greasy foods.
3. excessively or insincerely lavish: fulsome admiration.
4. encompassing all aspects; comprehensive: a fulsome survey of the political situation in Central America.
5. abundant or copious.
1200–50; ME fulsom. See full 1 , -some 1

Related forms:
ful?some?ly, adverb
ful?some?ness, noun

Usage note:
In the 13th century when it was first used, fulsome meant simply “abundant or copious.” It later developed additional senses of “offensive, gross” and “disgusting, sickening,” probably by association with foul, and still later a sense of excessiveness: a fulsome disease; a fulsome meal, replete with too much of everything. For some centuries fulsome was used exclusively, or nearly so, with these unfavorable meanings.
Today, both fulsome and fulsomely are also used in senses closer to the original one: The sparse language of the new Prayer Book contrasts with the fulsome language of Cranmer's Book of Common Prayer. Later they discussed the topic more fulsomely. These uses are often criticized on the grounds that fulsome must always retain its connotations of “excessive” or “offensive.” The common phrase fulsome praise is thus sometimes ambiguous in modern use.

Usually, when lawyers say "fulsome", they really mean "full." I trust that the foregoing has been a full if not fulsome explanation.


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