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Fulsome Praisin’ Blues

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Sally Yates (photo: Jim Bourg/Reuters)

My mother, the late Harriet Yagoda, was a language stickler in the best sense of the word. That is, she very purposefully declined to use loan as a verb, referred to”ant-ee-” (not “ant-eye-) biotics, answered the phone with “This is she,” and, rather magnificently, said “he became bar mitzvah” instead of “he got bar mitzvahed.” But, as far as I remember, she never corrected people who didn’t follow her example. Not even me. Or I.

I frequently think of another of her characteristic usages. She was careful never to say that she “graduated from Smith College,” rather that she “was graduated from Smith,” on account of it was Smith that was doing the graduating. I think of this so often because modern-day sticklers characteristically aren’t aware of the history of the verb, and hold up “I graduated from Smith” as proper and correct. The object of their scorn is the newer usage “I graduated Smith.” The point being that one generation’s anathema can become the next generation’s Gospel.

The topic came to mind because of the reaction to a few recent items in the news:

  • A couple of weeks ago, referring to a conversation between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said, “It was a very, very fulsome call.”
  • On May 8, former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates promised that in her congressional testimony, she would “be as fulsome and comprehensive as possible.”
  • The following evening, after  Donald Trump fired the FBI director, James Comey, Sen. Bob Corker said in a statement: “It is essential that ongoing investigations are fulsome and free of political interference until their completion.”

On Twitter and in other forums, these folks’ use of fulsome got slammed. And I thought of Harriet Yagoda. Just as with graduated, the complaints about the word had shifted over a relatively short period of time.

Fulsome is definitely a word with a history. In The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage (1996), R.W. Burchfield says that the “current standard meaning” is “excessive flattery.” This, he goes on, “seemed unthreatened until the second half of the 20c., when some people began to use it in a favorable sense.” He’s right on the mark as far as the dating goes. Eric Partridge’s Usage and Abusage (1947) doesn’t have an entry on fulsome. But Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage (1994) has one that goes on for nearly five columns of small type. It notes the first scolding mention in a 1951 New Yorker newsbreak:

“Nick Schenk, head of Loew’s Inc. is at work now drafting the letter of acceptance of L.B. Mayer’s resignation — to make it so fulsome that even Mr. Mayer will like it.” –Leonard Lyons in the Post.

You mean so coarse, gross, foul, satiating, nauseating, sickening? Or you mean so repulsive, disgusting, and offensive to moral sensibility?

All those synonyms (coarse, gross, etc.) are taken verbatim from Webster’s New International Dictionary, Second Edition. As M-W’s English usage dictionary demonstrates, that was actually an overstatement of the negative denotation of the word even in 1934, when Webster’s Second came out. But the die was cast, and positive fulsome  became one of the key tenets of 1950s and ’60s prescriptivism.

A half-century later, that battle has been lost, and the meaning is as accepted as the similarly once-scorned “I graduated from college.” A full 15 of the 20 most recent hits for fulsome on Google News (not including reports of the political quotes noted above) are in relation to praise, without any implication of excessive or obnoxious. (The most recent is from a May 14 article on the website of the Kansas City professional soccer team: “And the head coach was fulsome in his praise for the pint-sized poacher, who opened his scoring account for Kansas City early on, jumping on a loose ball after a Gerso cross, and then bagged a tap-in equalizer after a similar right-wing raid from the same attacking player.”) One has a musical sense I confess I don’t fully get (a writer describes a song in which “clipped chords and a fulsome house groove are pitted against wafts of UFO melody”). And four use fulsome in the same way the politicians used it, to mean “very full” or “comprehensive.” (“Pressure will mount on Rosenstein and Sessions to give a more fulsome explanation of their role and their motivations.”–The Australian, May 10.)

There’s nothing new about this last meaning. As Ben Zimmer noted last week in The Wall Street Journal, when fulsome “first entered the language in the 13th century, it meant ‘copious, plentiful,’ etymologically linked to the word full.” Indeed, the very first definition in the Oxford English Dictionary is: “Characterized by being full of some commodity or material; abundant, plentiful; providing a copious supply, rich; (in later use also) complete, comprehensive.” The OED citations indicate that this meaning fell out of use in the early 17th century and was revived in the late 19th. It has a citation from The Journal of Modern History, 1939: “Our documentary resources are not so fulsome and hence not so conclusive.” The sense appears to be experiencing a vogue at the moment.

I don’t especially like this use of the word; it seems to me unnecessary, as we already have full, very full, and comprehensive. But I’ll try not  to criticize anybody for using it. My mother taught me well.

 

 

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