ONE OF THE BEST indications of the way language changes is the word fulsome , which has for years meant "offensive to good taste, especially from excess." It is now being used to mean merely "excessive," or "abundant, plentiful".
The Harper's Dictionary of Contemporary Usage asked its panel of experts if they would accept the new meaning. Eighty-four per cent said no. "Horrors," said S. I. Hayakawa. "One of my favorite criteria for illiteracy," said Isaac Asimov. "Let's not fiddle with the meaning of fulsome," pleaded Steward Beach.
But speakers of English have always fiddled with the meaning of fulsome.
The original meaning of the word (from full plus some ) is "abundant, plentiful" (1250). That meaning lasted three centuries; the last citation in the OED is 1583. In the meantime the word picked up and discarded new meanings: fat, overgrown (1340-1673); overfed (1440-1805); gross and satiating (1410-1770); wearying from repetition (1531-1709); offensive of smell (1853-1725); (1583-1725); morally foul, obscene (1604-1726) and finally gross or excessive, as flattery (1663 to the present).
What a spectacular career! What a wonderful word! It should please all our many purists that afer 700 years of wayward use, fulsome if finally returning to its original and etymologically correct meaning. And it would please them too - if they knew anything about history, language and etymology.
The history of purism is full of affecting stories; here are two: one from Lounsbery, one from the Haper's Dictionary of Contemporary Usage .
Swift's hostility to mob continued to the end of his life, though the word was firmly established by that time. Walter Scott tells us of an old lady who died in 1788, and who was on terms of intimacy with the dean. She used to say that the greatest scrape she ever got into with him was owning to her use of mob . "Why do you say that?" he exclaimed in a passion. "Never let me hear you say that again." "Why, sir," she asked, "what am I to say?" "The rabble, to be sure," answered Swift.
The Harper's Dictionary asks its panel whether they insist on "she was graduated from Vassar," instead of "she graduated college." Ninety per cent said they insisted on the all-but-obsolete passive, and Heywood Hale Broun added this story.
"Years ago, Herbert Bayard Swope, one-time editor of the World, asked me when I had left college. "Sir, I replied, beginning as most people did in addressing Swope, I was graduated in 1940." Although he was elderly and heavy, he dragged himself up from an easy chair and lumbered across the room with outstretched hand. "I haven't heard it correctly used in years," he rumbled in a voice a growl with emotion. It was, for me, a ribbon on my diploma."
As a footnote: graduate was first used actively by Southey ("four years . . . before the student can graduate," 1807); reliable was first used in 1569; mob in 1688, twenty-two years before Swift got around in attacking it.