Fulsome use of the dictionary

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We are still encountering cases of people who leap to attack uses of particular word-senses without carefully checking the dictionaries and usage books first. Several emailers and commenters (some comments are now deleted) saw that I had repeated the BBC's claims that it had sought a "sincere and fulsome" apology from Carol Thatcher, and instantly wrote comments insisting that this was a gross mistake (on my part, some thought; I have now put in the quotation marks that I should not have risked leaving out), since fulsome doesn't mean anything like "full" but is in fact close to being an antonym of sincere.

People don't seem to look anything up before they leap to the comments box. (See Mark Liberman's documentations of astonishing earlier cases of ill-informed objections here and here, and similar remarks of mine on grammatical usage here and here.) The original senses of fulsome are, according to Webster (which is a constantly updated and extremely reliable dictionary of American English available online):

1 a copious or abundant;
1 b generous in amount or spirit;
1 c full and well developed.

Clearly the BBC intended one or more of these senses.

What has given rise to controversy is that a second sense emerged subsequently: 2 offensive (aesthetically or morally). And more recently, two closely related other meanings arose: 3 exceeding the bounds of good taste ("the fulsome chromium glitter of the escalators dominating the central hall" [Lewis Mumford]), and 4 excessively complimentary or flattering ("an admiration whose extent I did not express, lest I be thought fulsome" [A. J. Liebling]). It is the last of these that leads some readers to think that a fulsome apology could not possibly be sincere, so the BBC were asking for something impossible.

As often in such cases, Merriam-Webster has appended an excellent usage note to the dictionary entry online. It says:

The senses shown above are the chief living senses of fulsome. Sense 2, 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, 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.

But in the BBC's case, you can tell, so there is no ambiguity: sense 4 would give you a contradiction, and it isn't reasonable to think they wanted to contradict themselves, so obviously they meant one of the senses in 1.

Look before you leap, guys. When a word sense error looks so blatantly ready for a Gotcha that you can hardly believe your luck, sometimes it's because you didn't read all of the dictionary entry. Or didn't look in a dictionary at all.

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