FULSOME: “1. Offensively flattering or insincere; 2. Offensive to the taste or sensibilities; 3. Usage Problem Copious or abundant.” —The American Heritage Dictionary, Fourth Edition

New York Times | March 5, 2011: Until Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s violent suppression of unrest in recent weeks, the United Nations Human Rights Council was kind in its judgment of Libya. In January, it produced a draft report on the country that reads like an international roll call of fulsome praise, when not delicately suggesting improvements.

Washington Post | March 6, 2011: President Obama needs to understand that we do not need the combination of fulsome praise and punitive policies that have been the trademark of Arne Duncan’s Department of Education. It may impress members of the media and politicians, but at the end of the day, you cannot have it both ways. You cannot claim to be all about honoring our profession and schools, and then support policies that are in danger of destroying them.

Now, you tell me which definition applies in the two passages above. Of course, they would’t be here in Lexicide if they were unambiguous. Context makes it clear that both writers intended fulsome to mean “copious, abundant.” Context is king.

But wait:

The Economist | March 3, 2011: Meanwhile UN Watch, a lobby group that counters UN criticism of Israel, has gleefully recalled the fulsome praise for Libya that many council members offered when that country was undergoing a review of its performance a few months ago. Iran had “noted with appreciation” the Libyan government’s new human-rights agency and its “enabling environment for NGOs”; Syria was impressed by Libya’s “democratic regime based on promoting the people’s authority”; and North Korea lauded Libya’s achievements “in the protection of human rights, especially…economic and social rights.”

Sounds like more of the same, except The Economist’s website makes sure to include a Javascript link on the word fulsome. Clicking on the link brings up a window with synonyms such as oily, smarmy and unctuous. Clearly the editors wanted to be sure you were channeling the correct definition.

I really didn’t want to tackle fulsome, as so many wordsmiths have done (in vain, of course). But it keeps coming up. Sure, the word’s classical definition is “full, abundant” (although why we need both full and fulsome as synonyms is beyond me). Somewhere in the 16th or 17th centuries, the word acquired its uglier meaning, mostly seen in the phrase fulsome praise, for which read “obnoxious brownnosing” or even “backhanded compliment.” Only in the 20th century did the older, more boring definition begin to reassert itself.

So what’s a writer to do? William Safire offers this sage advice: “Never use a word sure to sow confusion.” And that’s what The Guardian realized was happening when its Wintour and Watt blog proffered the headline “Fulsome apology and fluffed Labour response saves Caroline Spelman.” When I refreshed the page, it had changed to Full apology and fluffed Labour response saves Caroline Spelman.

To The Guardian, I offer my fulsome appreciation!

Otto E. Mezzo


Libya’s Late, Great Rights Record,” The New York Times | March 5, 2011 http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/06/weekinreview/06libya.html

Obama’s odd embrace of Jeb Bush,” The Washington Post |March 6, 2011 http://voices.washingtonpost.com/answer-sheet/obama-right-and-wrong.html

“An Unlikely Unifier,” The Economist | March 3, 2011  http://www.economist.com/node/18277151?story_id=18277151&fsrc=rss

“On Language,” The New York Times | March 16, 2009  http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/22/magazine/22wwln-safire-t.html

Wintour and Watt blog, The Guardian | February 17, 2011 http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/wintour-and-watt/2011/feb/17/caroline-spelman

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