It’s a trap.
It’s a Barmecide feast, a Potemkin village. It’s like internecine, comprise, meretricious, or one of Benjamin Lee Whorf’s “empty” gasoline drums. If you go by what it looks like, even by what you’ve seen other people treat it as, you will end up in Fulsome Prison.
Because we want it that way.
Does it look like it is made from full (meaning ‘full’) plus the same some that you get on awesome, quarrelsome, adventuresome, bothersome, fearsome, and lonesome? I’m sorry to have to tell you that you are one hundred percent correct. That is exactly where it comes from.
So it means something like ‘plentiful’, right? “Fulsome praise” is like “effusive praise”?
Yes, it does. Historically. I can open any dictionary and it will confirm that that is a sense you can use it for. But if you use it like that in front of people who “know what it means,” it’s like using the wrong fork at a fancy dinner. People who “know what it means” have learned that there is one, and only one, definition that someone who knows what it means could possibly use. And it’s not the obvious one. And if you use the wrong definition, then you’re out of the club!
(I don’t know why so many people who claim to love English act like the mean kids in a high-school clique, except actually yes, I do, and so does everyone else, because we all know why we act like that when we act like that.)
So. Here are the definitions of fulsome as listed in the Oxford English Dictionary, excluding those now considered obsolete, along with the date of their first citation:
- Characterized by being full of some commodity or material; abundant, plentiful; providing a copious supply, rich; (in later use also) complete, comprehensive. (1325)
- Chiefly of a person or (a part of) the body: full and plump; fleshy, corpulent; oversized, overfed; (in later use) full-figured; voluptuous. Also in extended use. (1447)
- Offending against accepted standards of morality or taste; morally reprehensible, obnoxious, deplorable. Scottish in later use. Now rare. (1390)
- Of food: coarse, heavy, filling; difficult to digest, cloying. Also in figurative contexts. Now rare. (1555)
- Sickening, nauseating (in taste); sickly-sweet. Now rare. (1694)
- Physically disgusting; filthy, dirty, foul, loathsome. Scottish in later use. (1510)
- Offensive to the sense of smell, foul-smelling, rank. Also: strong-smelling, pungent. (1576)
- Of language or behaviour, or of a person with regard to this:
- Offensive or objectionable owing to excess or lack of moderation; esp. excessively effusive or complimentary; too lavish, overdone. (1602)
- Unrestrained, exuberant; effusive; lavish; wholehearted. (1922)
Definition 8a is the one you’re supposed to adhere to absolutely and without erring. But that’s the OED. How about the less overloaded Merriam-Webster? Here are its definitions, which are arranged in historical order:
- characterized by abundance : COPIOUS
- generous in amount, extent, or spirit
- being full and well developed
- aesthetically, morally, or generally offensive
- exceeding the bounds of good taste : OVERDONE
- excessively complimentary or flattering : EFFUSIVE
Definitions 3 and 4 are the ones you’re supposed to adhere to absolutely and without erring. Got it? Yes, yes, they’re the newest meanings, and the people who sternly correct you tend to position themselves as the great defenders of the tradition of the English language, but you have to understand that most “traditions” that people will defend to the death are just things that their immature youthful selves learned as established truths, and some of them aren’t really very old at all. It’s like thinking that the cool kids you remember from high school were the original cool kids at the dawn of time.
Anyway. All those other definitions of fulsome? Especially the ones that seem like the obvious meaning? They’re just extra padding, there to deceive you. Remember what you learned as a child when you said “goed” instead of “went”: Obvious things are for stupid people!
I think you know what I think of those attitudes. We are not in high school anymore and ought not to act like it. But I feel it is my duty to warn you about this word, which is truly semantically fulsome, in any damn sense of fulsome you choose. If you use it to mean ‘plentiful’ you will be accused of being an idiot by a certain set of people. However, if you use it to mean ‘excessive, overdone, insincere’, et cetera, there are quite a lot of people who, not knowing about the trap, will not catch your drift. And many of the people who “know what it means” will still assume you’re using it “wrong.”
My advice, therefore, is to avoid using it at all. There are plenty of other words out there that aren’t booby-trapped. You know: plentiful or replete on the one hand, overdone or insincere on the other. And more.
Unless, of course, you want to hurt people. Which is common, but not, shall we say, wholesome.