In the film "Zero Dark Thirty," the C.I.A. interrogator played by Jessica Chastain castigates a detainee for not being "fulsome" in his responses. She means that he hasn't provided a full account of his activities and associates.
But we English teachers want the captive to respond, "You're right. I didn't lard my narrative with exaggerated language, glittering adjectives and excessive description."
That's because, for the past 400 years, "fulsome" has meant, not "full" or "complete," but "excessively complimentary, flattering, cloying." "Fulsome praise" usually refers to compliments that are nauseating in their excess, while "fulsome prose" denotes overwritten verbiage.
In "The Old Bachelor," a 1693 play by William Congreve, for instance, a character denounced "sneering fulsome Lies and nauseous Flattery." (You can't help wondering whether a fulsome review of that play might have read, "Greatest hit since the Bible! An immortal blockbuster!")
But during the past couple of decades, more and more people, apparently oblivious to this negative meaning, have been using "fulsome" to mean "full, complete," with no negative connotation.
In 2009, for instance, President Barack Obama was talking about his first stimulus package when he pulled a Jessica Chastain. "I just want to make sure," he said, "that we're ... presenting to the American people a fulsome accounting of what is going on in this program."
Linguistic purists howled because Obama was clearly using "fulsome" to mean "complete," not "nauseatingly excessive."
Ten years ago, the American Heritage Dictionary tested the acceptability of using "fulsome" to mean "full, complete" on its usage panel. Whoa! Only 16 percent of the panel members endorsed the use of "fulsome" to mean "full" in these sentences: "You can adjust the TV's audio settings for a more fulsome bass," and "The final report will furnish a more detailed and fulsome discussion."
So "fulsome" has become what usage expert Bryan Garner calls a "skunked" term; that is, you can't use "fulsome" in a positive sense without some folks sniffing a whiff of negativity. If a groom thanks his best man for his "fulsome introduction," what does the groom really mean?
Given the two meanings of "fulsome," I'd avoid using the word altogether. My hunch is that by, say, 2030 (Twenty Dark Thirty?) the traditional meaning of "excessive" will have faded, and the "full" meaning will predominate.
Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Conn., invites your language sightings. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via e-mail to Wordguy@aol.com or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254Copyright 2013 Creators Syndicate Inc.