Tom Chivers, the Telegraph's assistant comment editor, has posted some comments of his own on the linguistic side of a recent British parliamentary controversy ("Nadine Dorries, linguistic pioneer", The Telegraph 9/12/2011). David Cameron said something about Ms. Dorries that some perceived as offensive; he later apologized to her, and she responded:
I don’t for one moment believe Mr Cameron meant to insult me with his “frustrated” remark. [...] He has since apologised fulsomely.
Mr. Chivers pounces on that fulsomely — but first, he links to a Language Log take-down of Simon Heffer, who used to write for the Telegraph:
Obviously, English is a living language, and meanings change. Etymology is all very well and good, but the only final arbiter of what a word means is what people understand it to mean. We no longer think of "Knight" as meaning "servant" (like the German Knecht), but that is what it used to mean. "Lord" and "Lady" derive from the Old English for "provider of bread" and "kneader of bread" respectively. The meanings change, and while the way that they change is interesting, you can't tell someone that they're wrong to say a car "collided with a tree" because the Latin root implies two moving objects; we're not speaking Latin any more.
But there are losses to meaning by which we can be saddened, and if "fulsome" goes the way of "bread-kneader", I for one will be saddened by it, because there will be no word now which says "offensively flattering or insincere", and instead there will be yet another which says "effusive" or "abundant".
I'm interested and pleased to see this evidence of journalistic uptake, so I hope that Mr. Chivers won't be offended if I point out two small problems.
First, as the cited post explains, Mr. Heffer's etymological theory about proper use of collide and collision being limited to two moving objects wasn't true even in Latin, where (for example) Petronius wrote of a cup thrown down and colliding with the floor.
And second, fulsome originally meant "copious, abundant". This developed gradually through "plump, fat" and "overfed, surfeited", through "cloying, excessive" and "disgusting, repulsive" to "gross or excessive flattery, over-demonstrative affection". But the original meanings never really went away.
The senses shown above are the chief living senses of fulsome. Sense 2 ["aesthetically, morally, or generally offensive"], which was a generalized term of disparagement in the late 17th century, is the least common of these. Fulsome became a point of dispute when sense 1 ["copious; generous in amount, extent, or spirit; full and well developed"], thought to be obsolete in the 19th century, began to be revived in the 20th. The dispute was exacerbated by the fact that the large dictionaries of the first half of the century missed the beginnings of the revival. Sense 1 has not only been revived but has spread in its application and continues to do so. The chief danger for the user of fulsome is ambiguity. Unless the context is made very clear, the reader or hearer cannot be sure whether such an expression as "fulsome praise" is meant in sense 1b or in sense 4.
And many of the classic "term of disparagement" uses don't fit Mr. Chivers' "offensively flattering or insincere" mold — thus Alexander Pope wrote (Satires of Dr. John Donne, Dean of St. Paul's, Versified):
Well, I could wish, that still in lordly domes
Some beasts were kill'd, though not whole hecatombs
That both extremes were banish'd from their walls,
Carthusian fasts, and fulsome bacchanals;
But still, Chivers deserves credit for this very un Heffersaurian principle: "the only final arbiter of what a word means is what people understand it to mean". The rest is mere fact.
Update — more on the subject from Mr. Chivers ("The English language and my not-so-fulsome grasp of it", 9/13/2011:
Apparently some journalists and politicians don't feel they've made it until they've been lampooned in Private Eye. Well, for me, something comparable has just happened. The magnificent Language Log has taken a look at my post yesterday about Nadine Dorries and the word "fulsome", and pointed out – as quite a few of you did in the comments – that I was, not to put too fine a point on it, wrong:
…fulsome originally meant "copious, abundant". This developed gradually through "plump, fat" and "overfed, surfeited", through "cloying, excessive" and "disgusting, repulsive" to "gross or excessive flattery, over-demonstrative affection". But the original meanings never really went away.
That is, in the end, me told. They say some other nice things – mainly, that I deserve credit for admitting "the only final arbiter of what a word means is what people understand it to mean", which they describe as "un-Heffersaurian", for some reason.
He also says that
I've responded underneath the Language Log piece, which I hope will be visible there soon …
But his comment is neither awaiting moderation nor (as far as Ben Zimmer and I have been able to determine) trappped by our Akismet spam filter. I'm not sure what has happened, but it seems that Akismet must flush its repository automatically when it reaches a certain size, and we are now getting an average of more than four thousand spam comments a day.
Anyhow, here is what Mr. Chivers offers at the Telegraph as "the slightly edited gist of [his] reply":
As you say, “fulsome” originally meant what Ms Dorries thinks it means, and that the meaning has never been out of use, so the whole premise of my post was, pretty much, nonsense. I suppose that, once you get beyond the fact that words mean what people think they mean, it’s just personal taste. I liked the more subtle and specific meaning of “fulsome” as “offensively over-the-top", on the basis that there are lots of words meaning “full", “abundant” and “effusive” already. But, sadly for me, nowadays (and not only nowadays, as you point out) it means both: so Ms Dorries’s use was perfectly accurate. I don’t like it, but that's my problem.
He closes with these flattering sentences:
For those of you who don't know Language Log, please do go and have a read around. They are the geniuses who inspired this, still one of my favourite things I've ever written: Dan Brown's 20 worst sentences.