The Prompter Room

For Tuesday, August 1, 2017:


Yesterday’s TV news reports reminded me that this might be a good time to rehearse the meaning of an oft-used word that is usually used incorrectly: ‘fulsome.’  James J. Kilpatrick, my favorite go-to source for all things grammar, has this to say:

It always is a shock for a writer to discover that a familiar word doesn’t mean what he thinks it means.  So it is with fulsome.  For a good many years I thought fulsome was a friendly word.  Many others thought the same thing.  In 1983 a Midwestern newspaper reported on astronaut Sally Ride: ‘Ms. Ride, appearing fresh and spirited despite her trail-blazing, six-day voyage, modestly accepted President Reagan’s fulsome praise.’

No, no, no!  Fulsome does not mean abundant, or copious, or florid, or excessive.  Its primary meaning is insincere, phony, offensively effusive.  Members of the Senate engage in fulsome speech when they speak of an ‘able, distinguished, erudite, and dedicated’ colleague.  This is spatula speech, the kind of no-cal icing that may be piled upon a pound cake.



(See my page above, ‘Those Fulsome Wordplay Blues,’ for more on this word and others that tend to trip up even the best writers.)




The Prompter Room

A little change of pace today, generated by one of the books I’m currently reading …

I’m only 130 pages in to the novel set in Victorian England and already the co-authors have used the word ‘fulsome’ several times.  In all those instances, they have used it semi-correctly only once.

One of the characters, Cardwell, for instance, ‘tugged at his fulsome muttonchops, fiddled with his speckled bow tie, cleared his throat, and tried to keep his growing temper in check.’

Another character, Captain Miles, ‘ … sparkled in his uniform and wore very well his other emblems of authority, including side whiskers so fulsome that they would have made Edward Cardwell weep with envy.’

As Chapter Thirteen starts, one of the main characters, Douglas, reflects on the scene before him.  The ‘great ship’ Sultana is ‘as fit as any vessel put to sea.  Then again … [i]f she sank beneath those fulsome waves, succumbing to a watery grave, the only thing left afloat would be the lard.’

Perhaps you can tell from these passages which is the more correct way to use ‘fulsome.’  I’ve addressed this more fully in the Page above called ‘Those Fulsome Wordplay Blues,’ but in short, ‘fulsome’ is not a word that means something good.  In his book Fine Print James J. Kilpatrick declares it is not the ‘friendly’ word he [and I will add, most people] thought it was.  ‘Its primary meaning is insincere, phony, offensively effusive …’

The Oxford Dictionary and Thesaurus defines ‘fulsome’ as ‘disgusting by excess of flattery, servility, or expressions of flattery, cloying … In fulsome praise, fulsome means “excessive,” not “generous.”‘

Using these definitions, even the third passage above, about the ‘fulsome waves,’ is not entirely correct, but it is closer to the intended meaning than ‘fulsome’ side whiskers.  Given the authors’ use of ‘fulsome waves,’ though, I wonder why neither they nor their editors noticed the difference.

I wonder, too, how many more times they’ll use the word.  And if they’ll find the right meaning eventually.