Only Context Tells Us What You Mean By 'Fulsome'
We might insist on what we perceive as the true meaning of a word, but truth can be a tricky thing. How much do we rely on original meaning, how much on current usage, how much on what we learned in elementary school?
A word that beggars a true meaning is fulsome; it can be a good thing or bad thing or maybe just an excessive thing. Context is our only friend with this one, and if there is doubt, it's probably better to find another word.
Dictionary definitions sometimes echo each other, but not so with fulsome. What most dictionaries agree on is that it's more commonly a negative term, offensive or excessive. But abundant also gets a nod.
Usage guides tend to come down on the side of offensively abundant.
The Associated Press Stylebook says fulsome "means disgustingly excessive” and should not be used to mean “lavish or profuse.” The BBC News Styleguide says, probably incorrectly, that “fulsome is not a close relative of full.”
The etymology is unclear. It could be related to foul, but most sources say it does come from full. The Oxford English Dictionary has a century of citations with the abundance meaning before examples where excessive or foul came into play.
Those who insist on a negative meaning for fulsome are ignoring its roots.
The negative sense beat out the positive sense long ago, and all would be fine if we had left it at that. But the positive sense has made a comeback in recent years. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, it has been used since the 1960s "in its original, favorable sense, especially in ‘fulsome praise.’”
The American Heritage Dictionary found only 21 percent support in its 2012 survey of its usage panel for the sentence: “The final report will furnish a more detailed and fulsome discussion of the details involved.” That's up from 12 percent support for the same sentence in 2002.
Paul Brians on his Common Errors in English Usage says of the disagreement over the word: “The first group tends to look down on the second group, and the second group tends to be baffled by the first. Best to just avoid the word altogether.”
It probably should be avoided if there is any doubt as to the meaning. But context often will provide enough clues that only the peevers will have any objection.