Dear Word Detective: We’ve had recent occasion in Minneapolis for politicians to bloviate more than usual. I heard one on the radio this morning saying “We need fulsome debate on this subject.” His use of “fulsome” threw me for a loop. I’d always thought “fulsome” was a negative word, more or less meaning “offensive,” but he was clearly using it (twice) to mean “extensive” debate. Am I still living in the 17th century or has the word changed that much? — Barney Johnson.
Good question. Incidentally, my spell-checker (in Open Office) doesn’t recognize the word “bloviate,” and suggests that you may mean “alleviate.” Has Minneapolis stumbled on politicians who actually “alleviate”? If so, please share with the rest of us.
OK, Andy Rooney mode off. “Bloviate” is a fine old (19th century) word meaning “to speak at length in empty, pompous rhetoric,” and probably comes from “to blow” in the sense of “to boast” (as in “blowhard”). The word was popularized by President Warren G. Harding, who was no slouch at “bloviation” himself.
As for “fulsome,” your puzzlement is justified. “Fulsome” first appeared in Middle English (from “ful,” full, plus “som,” meaning “possessing” or “characterized by”), and initially, in the 13th century, meant simply “abundant, plentiful.” Extended uses of the word soon appeared, giving us “fulsome” (plump) people and “fulsome” (profound) devotion to religion. Fairly early on, however, “fulsome,” especially as used among the literati and upper echelons of society, also took on the meaning of “too much of a good thing.” A “fulsome” meal, once merely “satisfying,” became “gross” and “nauseating.” “Fulsome praise” came to mean not simply kind compliments but overblown, cloying and quite possibly utterly insincere toadying. By the 16th century, in fact, “fulsome” had come to mean “disgusting, foul, loathsome.”
This transformation in the usage of “fulsome” was not unprecedented in English (after all, “nice” used to mean “stupid”), but what made it unusual was that people also continued, during this same span of several centuries, to use “fulsome” in its original positive sense of “abundant.” This led, not surprisingly, to occasional confusion, but the context in which the word was used usually could be used to judge the meaning meant.
By the 20th century, the pejorative sense of “fulsome” had abated somewhat, and it was usually used, in the phrase “fulsome praise” for instance, to mean simply “overblown, excessive” (rather than “vile and disgusting”). Since the 1960s, however, there has been an increase in the use of “fulsome,” even in phrases such as “fulsome praise,” to mean simply “abundant, complete.” This may be due to the fact that “fulsome,” at first glance, appears to be a positive word. Who, after all, doesn’t like “full”? To listeners unfamiliar with the previous negative connotations of “fulsome” (a class which probably includes, at this point, most English speakers), “fulsome” sounds like a good thing. And to a politician, always on the lookout for a pompous locution, replacing “full” with “fulsome” is just what the spin doctor ordered — instant “gravitas” in one little word. So I guess we’d better get used to it.