The English language and my not-so-fulsome grasp of it

 A fulsome woman. (Photo: PA)
A fulsome woman. (Photo: PA)

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. And it’s all wonderfully urbane and articulate and kind. But I was, in describing Ms Dorries as using the word “incorrectly”, entirely mistaken myself. As I said yesterday, Muphry’s Law (or Skitt’s Law) lies in wait for the unwary.

I’ve responded underneath the Language Log piece, which I hope will be visible there soon – but I thought I’d post the slightly edited gist of my reply here, which was:

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.

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.


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