A fulsome account of fulsome

We've talked before about President Obama's use of enormity to mean "really really big" instead of "great wickedness." We've also talked about why some smart people think that's really not a problem.

At first blush, it seems like he did something similar yesterday in a speech to the National Governors Association when talking about the stimulus package:

"I just want to make sure that we're having an honest debate in presenting to the American people a fulsome accounting of what is going on in this program."

Fulsome's first definition in Webster's New World is something that is "disgusting or offensive, especially because (it is) excessive or insincere." Most other dictionaries I checked give something similar as a first definition.

But they also acknowledge that it is used to mean "full; ample; abundant." (New World)  However, the dictionaries attach phrases like "usage objected to by some" (New World) and "usage problem" (American Heritage).

However, New World also hints at something more interesting. Before giving the disputed definition, it says "apparent revival of the original sense, obsolete since the 16th century."

Merriam-Webster Online explains this further, and also breaks with the other dictionaries by giving the abundant sense its first definition:

1 a. characterized by abundance : copious

1 b. generous in amount, extent, or spirit

1 c. being full and well developed

2. aesthetically, morally, or generally offensive

3. exceeding the bounds of good taste : overdone

4. excessively complimentary or flattering : effusive

usage. The senses shown above are the chief living senses of fulsome. Sense 2, which was a generalized term of disparagement in the late 17th century, is the least common of these. Fulsome became a point of dispute when sense 1, thought to be obsolete in the 19th century, began to be revived in the 20th. The dispute was exacerbated by the fact that the large dictionaries of the first half of the century missed the beginnings of the revival. Sense 1 has not only been revived but has spread in its application and continues to do so. The chief danger for the user of fulsome is ambiguity. Unless the context is made very clear, the reader or hearer cannot be sure whether such an expression as "fulsome praise" is meant in sense 1b or in sense 4.

Although I agree there is some danger in ambiguity when talking about "fulsome praise," in the case of Obama's speech, it was clear what he meant.

(Thanks to my mom for pointing pointing me at the speech.)