What a pleasure to see William Safire’s column, On Language, in the Sunday
New York Times Magazine. In the second section, Safire complains about the misuse of “fulsome.” It doesn’t mean abundant or full. In fact, it doesn’t mean anything good at all. It alludes to something that’s excessive, cloying and over-the-top.
“We need to put together a really fulsome press release,” said a guy I used to work with a few years ago. I’d just started the job and he was one of the people who’d hired me. So I didn’t think it was my place to go around correcting his language. Maybe, I thought, it would pass.
It didn’t. As it turned out, fulsome was one of his very favorite words. He’d sometimes use it several times in the course of a meeting. Someone had given fulsome praise. Someone else had weighed in with a fulsome compliment. An article I had written — well, that was fulsome, too.
I sat through several months of meetings, grinding my teeth. The trouble with introducing a new or unusual word into the conversation, I noticed, was that other people took it up and used it. In a very fulsome way, if you know what I mean. For months, everything good was fulsome. I was losing my mind.
Finally, in a staff meeting — when I realized it was either my sanity or the continued misuse of that wretched word — I lost it. I gave a long, heated, overblown analysis of the word, what it meant, what it didn’t mean. Everybody kind of stared at me. I wasn’t so new by then and I guess they figured it was another one of my occasional, unattractive blowups (which were usually linked to politics).
But — oh, thank God — I never heard the word fulsome misused again. I assume everybody thought I’d start to froth at the mouth, and who needs that in a staff meeting?
But this all reminds me of a story I once heard about Nancy Reagan. Mrs. Reagan was, one of her aides told a reporter, a very literal person.
What did the aide mean by that? The reporter asked, a bit confused.
Well, the aide said, Mrs. Reagan really liked to read. A whole lot.
(Copyright 2008 by Ruth Pennebaker)