fulsome: offensive to good taste, by reason of being done to excess

You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means

A news organization has an obligation—and it is an obligation—to report news fulsomely, wholesomely and without fear or favor. That’s what Fox News has always done and that’s what Fox News will always do.

Lachlan Murdoch quoted in The Guardian (13 March 2023)

It’s probably safe to assume that Lachlan Murdoch did not intend to suggest that his own news channel is offensive to good taste. And, in the time it’s taken me to get around to writing this post, I notice that the Guardian has come to a similar conclusion and added a little warning “[sic]” after the word I’ve highlighted in red, above. Which is a journalist’s way of saying, “This is what he said, but maybe not what he meant.” (It’s also not clear to me how a news broadcast can be “wholesome”, but I’ll come back to that later.)

Murdoch, like many people, was probably using fulsome as if it were a rather recherché synonym for “fully”. That usage has become so common it has turned fulsome into what Bryan Garner calls a “skunked word”—one you can’t use without generating misunderstanding and/or condemnation.

The interesting thing about fulsome is that it started out with the meaning that it’s now drifting back to. The Oxford English Dictionary‘s earliest citations (from the thirteenth to the sixteenth century) offer the splendidly wordy definition, “Characterized by abundance, possessing or affording copious supply; abundant, plentiful, full.” But it quickly began to acquire negative connotations—overgrown plants, unhealthily obese people, offensively strong smells, excessive amounts of food … these were all labelled fulsome. And by the seventeenth century, the word had completely parted company with ideas of abundance and plenitude, and had set up camp dealing with offensive excess.

Fulsome is formed from the adjective full and the suffix -some, which was used in Old English to form adjectives from nouns, and to make new adjectives from other adjectives. Full was (and is) a fairly concrete adjective, describing water-jugs and stomachs; whereas fulsome (in its original sense) could be applied to fertile fields or plentiful water supplies.

Full has an associated verb, fill, and a noun, also fill. This latter is familiar from the phrase to eat (or drink) one’s fill, but it also applies to the stuff archæologists dig out of old pits and ditches while investigating their contents, and the stuff road-builders put in to gullies and hollows, to create a level surface for their roadbed.

And then there’s the adjectival suffix -ful, which means something between “full of” and “characterized by”. So we have manful, masterful, beautiful and graceful, for example. Grateful is a remnant of the old adjective grate, “pleasing”, and bashful of the verb bash, “to daunt”. And more recently -ful started helping to form nouns, too. What was originally a hand-full (of something) became a handful, and likewise a spoonful and cupful, among others.

Finally, there’s fulfil (or fulfill in American English). The OED gives its original meaning succinctly: “To fill to the full”. This meaning shifted to imply the act of providing the full amount requested or desired, and then to the act of bringing something to completion—in that sense, you can fulfil a prophecy, your own destiny, or (more prosaically) a contract. And in a more dilute form, you can fulfil something simply by complying with a set of rules—the entry requirements of a university, or the conditions of a visa application, for instance. The noun formed from fulfil, fulfilment, can be used in the same specific contexts as fulfil, but has taken on something of a life of its own as a slightly woolly contributor to mental health—we’re encouraged to seek “personal fulfilment”, which seems to mean getting stuff done that you want to get done. Can’t argue with that.

On, then, to the suffix -some. This started work back in Old English, was productive in Middle English, and has been churning out a supply of new words ever since. The newer words, like quarrelsome and fearsome, tend to have fairly transparent etymologies, because their root words have retained their meanings. (Another word in this category was awesome, until people started using it to mean little more than “satisfactory”.)

Scottish English invented a whole list of numerical -some words that drifted into wider usage—the OED has citations for everything from twosome to tensome, but maybe foursome golf and eightsome reels are the most common examples nowadays.

But many older words have drifted away from their original meanings—which brings me to Lachlan Murdoch’s use of wholesome. This started off in Old English with the meaning “conducive to health”, derived from an old meaning of whole, “fit and well”, which eventually mutated into hale, as in the phrase “hale and hearty”. Wholesome shifted its meaning from “health-giving” to “healthy”, and then became a judgement not just of physical but of moral well-being. The next development occurred at the end of the twentieth century, pretty much unnoticed in the UK. But in American English as spoken by certain parts of US society, it came to mean “sexually chaste”. From there it got stirred into a general pot of “family values”, and emerged in the 2010s (presumably somewhat shell-shocked) as a signifier for all things cosy and nice. To quote from Constance Grady’s Vox article on the topic:

Wholesomeness as we’re using it now means friends supporting friends. It means valuing kindness. It means not judging simple pleasures.

Are you any nearer to understanding what Lachlan Murdoch means when he says he wants the news to be reported “wholesomely”? Nope, me neither. I’d have given him another “[sic]” for that one, but that’s possibly just me.

Winsome is the only commonly used survivor from Old English. It derives from an old noun win, meaning “joy”. So something winsome was joy-giving. Only later did the meaning narrow down to designate young women of pleasing appearance, character and manner.

Handsome originally meant “easily handled”, then mutated into “able to handle things easily”, then “skilful”, then “courteous”, before finally arriving at its current meaning, “of pleasing appearance”.

By way of contrast, noisome hasn’t changed its meaning much, but we’ve forgotten its derivation, making it harder to deduce that meaning. It comes from the old verb noy, “to trouble or injure” (the origin of our modern word annoy). So noisome things are harmful or repellent.

Then there’s buxom, a word rarely far from the company of wench or maid. It implies brimming good health and a sort of jolly comfortableness of figure and manner, but perhaps not one to use unless you’re writing a rather formulaic historical novel. It originated as bowsome, “readily bent”, then shifted through “indulgent” to “gracious”, to “good-tempered” to its current (albeit justifiably waning) usage.

I’ll leave you with a couple of -some words that are dear to my heart. A reviewer once described my book The Complete Lachlan (2013) as “chortlesome indeed”. By the standards of -some words, that’s a fairly recent coining, given that the word chortle was invented by Lewis Carroll for his poem “Jabberwocky” in Through the Looking-Glass (1872):

“And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”
He chortled in his joy.

In contrast, the word toothsome, once used by an on-line commentator to describe my post about the -ise/-ize suffix, is really rather old—it has been used to mean “tasty” since the sixteenth century. It originates in an old usage of the word tooth, referring to the sense of taste—the phrase to love the tooth was once a way of saying “to be fond of eating”; and a having a sweet tooth meant that you were fond of sweet tastes, not (as I assumed when a child), having teeth rotted by too much confectionary.

And I hope you’ve found something toothsome about this post, too.

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