Dear Richard Lederer: Would you please write a column about the use and misuse of the word fulsome? A recent story from the Washington Post, reprinted in the Union-Tribune, began, “President Donald Trump offered a fulsome defense of Russian President Vladimir Putin.” I can’t tell whether the Post’s reporters are using the word correctly, to mean “fawning or flattering to an offensively obsequious degree,” or in the less than standard usage to mean “extensive, expansive.”
Some people automatically assume that fulsome refers to a very full treatment, but this is not correct, although in a hundred years this may, alas, be the only way the word is used. Fulsome is always pejorative and usually connotes insincerity. Trump’s praise of Putin, if sincere, was probably not fulsome, although if those who heard it were sickened by the praise, it probably was fulsome. I’m guessing that the Post’s reporters merely meant something like “Trump spoke at length in praise of Putin,” although it is entirely possible that they intended a pejorative meaning. –David Dooley, who titled his e-message to me “Inside Fulsome Prison”
Fulsome is a quintessential example of what I call a confusable word — one that looks and sounds as though it means one thing but turns out to mean another. As David Dooley correctly points out, fulsome means “offensive to the senses,” not “full, abundant.” Mr. Dooley’s perceptive analysis inspires me to feature a rogues’ gallery of additional double-edged words:
Similar to fulsome is another adjective, noisome. “The Bureau of Animal Affairs will help you get those clucking, flapping pigeons off your window ledge and will issue a summons to those who scatter food that attracts bands of the noisome birds.” Oops again. The Bureau writer, like many other English users, apparently thought that noisome means “noisy.” But noisome has nothing to do with noise. Rather, the word is formed from a shortening of annoy plus the adjectival suffix -some. Noisome should be used to describe an offensive odor, annoying to the point of being nauseating.
After I spoke at a conference for the Illinois Council of Teachers of English, one of the officers of the group stood up and effused, “Thank you, Doctor Lederer, for your most enervating performance.” She apparently thought that enervating means “energizing,” but it doesn’t. Enervating, from the Latin e, “out of” + nervus, “nerve, sinew,” means “to weaken,” which is what I hope I didn’t do to those English teachers.
Whenever a flight attendant announces that the airplane I’m sitting in “will be in the air momentarily,” my heart leaps into my throat. That’s because momentarily means “for a moment,” not “in a moment.”
I once heard a Department of Defense official insist that “America must have the penultimate defense system!” But penultimate doesn’t mean “the very best.” Derived from the Latin paene, “almost,” and ultimus, “last,” penultimate actually means “next to the last.” The last thing we want is a penultimate defense system.
Building on fulsome, noisome, enervate, momentarily and penultimate, I present my tower of more babbling words:
- Anchorite means “a person who lives in seclusion,” not “a sailor.”
- Antebellum means “before the war,” not “against war.”
- Apiary is not a place where apes are kept but where bees are kept.
- Cupidity means “a strong desire for wealth,” not “a strong desire for love.”
- Disinterested means “unbiased,” not “bored.”
- Friable means “easily crumbled,” not “easily fried.”
- Hoi polloi means “the masses,” not “the upper crust.”
- Meretricious means “falsely attractive,” not “worthy.”
- Presently means “soon,” not “now.”
- Prosody means “the study of verse,” not “the study of prose.”
- Restive means “fidgety,” not “serene.”
- Risible means “disposed to laugh,” not “easily lifted.”
- Scarify means “to criticize cuttingly,” not “to frighten.”
- Toothsome means “palatable,” not “displaying prominent teeth.”
And wherefore means “why,” not “where.” In William Shakespeare’s tragedy, Romeo and Juliet, when the heroine sighs, “O Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou Romeo?” she is not trying to locate her new squeeze. Rather Juliet, a Capulet, is lamenting that the hunk she’s jonesing for turns out to be a member of a rival and despised family, the Montagues. This interpretation is clarified by the lines that follow:
Deny thy father and refuse thy name;
Or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love,
And I’ll no longer be a Capulet.