A “fulsome” critique of skunked terms and connotations

Princess Bride

The word “fulsome” is having a moment. Former acting attorney general Sally Yates, Senator Bob Corker, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson all used it recently. But words have both meanings and connotations, and in this case, the connotations are undermining the speakers’ intent.

What does “fulsome” mean? Here’s a definition from the American Heritage Dictionary:

fulsome (adj.)

1. Excessively flattering or insincerely earnest. See Synonyms at unctuous.
2. Disgusting or offensive: “With the stink of decaying corpses so near her cave … suddenly she felt overpowered by the fulsome reek” (Jean Auel).
3. Usage Problem Copious or abundant.

The “Usage Problem” refers to this revealing note:

Usage Note: The original meaning of fulsome was “copious, abundant.” But fulsome is now most often used of remarks that involve excessive praise or ingratiating flattery, as in Their fulsome compliments were viewed as an awkward attempt at winning approval. This narrower application of the word has become its sole meaning for many educated speakers, to the point where a large majority of the Usage Panel disapproves of the use of fulsome to mean simply “full” or “copious.” In our 2012 survey, only 19 percent accepted the use of fulsome as a synonym of full in the sentence You can adjust the TV’s audio settings for a more fulsome bass in movie soundtracks. Use of the word as a synonym of copious or expansive found only slightly more takers21 percent accepted The final report will furnish a more detailed and fulsome discussion of the issues involved. The use of fulsome as a simple synonym of praising without a clear indication of inordinacy or insincerity split the Panel nearly down the middle, with 55 percent accepting the example The research director claimed that the product was a major advance that would improve Web access for everyone, and the marketing VP was equally fulsome in her remarks. Thus it may be best to avoid fulsome except where the context unambiguously conveys the idea that the praise in question is excessive or fawning.

Merriam-Webster omits these warnings in its first definition, but includes a three other definitions with troubling connotations, and a milder usage note:

fulsome (adj.)

  1. Characterized by abundance, copious; generous in amount, extent, or spirit; being full or well developed
  2. Aesthetically, morally, or generally offensive
  3. Exceeding the bounds of good taste, overdone
  4. Excessively complimentary or flattering

Did You Know?

There is a lot of confusion about exactly what fulsome means. Some critics disapprove of using it in its original copious sense because they feel that sense is not negative enough; they say that fulsome should always be at least mildly deprecatory. It’s true that today fulsome is often used pejoratively to describe overly effusive language, but modern English writers still sometimes use it simply to mean abundant, or occasionally even in contexts where it is complimentary. Some writers go to the more negative extreme, using it for things that are offensive to normal tastes or sensibilities. To avoid misinterpretation, either be sure that the context in which you use the word makes the intended meaning clear or choose a different word.

How politicians confused us with their “fulsome” remarks

If you use a word like this, your meaning will be muddled. At best, readers and listeners will be confused; at worst, they’ll think you ignorant or mendacious. For example, here’s the sentence using “fulsome” in the opening statement of Yates’ testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee on May 8.

I also want to note that I intend my answers today to be as fulsome and comprehensive as possible while respecting my legal and ethical boundaries. As the Subcommittee understands, many of the topics of interest today concern classified information that I cannot address in this public setting, either directly or indirectly.

A better choice would be “forthright and comprehensive.” Comprehensive already suggests completeness. I don’t think Yates meant to be excessively flattering or insincere.

The next day, Republican Senator Corker appears to have liked the word and picked it up in ignorance of the same negative connotations. Here’s what he said after President Trump fired FBI Director James Comey:

It is essential that ongoing investigations are fulsome and free of political interference until their completion.

I’m sure Trump would describe the investigations as “exceeding the bounds of good taste, overdone.” But I think Corker meant “vigorous” or “fair and unimpeded.”

The previous week, Secretary Tillerson had described a call regarding Syria between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin this way:

It was a very constructive call that the two presidents had. It was a very, very fulsome call, a lot of detailed exchanges. So we’ll see where we go from here.

While I can imagine exchanges between Trump and Putin being rich with excessive flattery, that’s not at all what Tillerson is trying to suggest. And two repetitions of “very” don’t make things any clearer.

Heed the usage notes, not the sound of your voice

As Visual Thesaurus notes, fulsome has become a “skunked term,” a designation that Bryan Garner first introduced in the Dictionary of Modern American Usage.

A word whose definition or usage is so hotly contested that it never fails to draw attention to itself is called a skunked term.

In other words, fulsome seems to mean “full,” but it doesn’t — or at least it doesn’t always. It carries the stink of its other meaning, “excessive and insincere,” as in “a fulsome apology.” And no amount of insisting you meant the other meaning is going to remove that whiff of ambiguity.

Since I revere clarity, precision, and meaning above all else in writing, I recommend that you avoid terms like this. Watch out especially for words that mean something completely different from how they sound. Don’t use “bemused” (perplexed) to mean “amused.” Don’t use inflammable (“easy to catch on fire”) to mean fireproof. And please, for the love of all that is holy, don’t use “literally” to mean “really.”

These words are more likely to confuse than to impress.

There is nothing wrong with words like “full,” “complete,” or “comprehensive” — and they don’t carry odious connotations. Simple and precise beats skunked and ambiguous every time.

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One Comment

  1. And don’t use dispassionate to mean the opposite of passionate, like- “unpassionate” when it instead means being objective. It is as annoying to hear it misused as the non-word irregardless, which is synonymous with regardless.