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Sunday, March 22, 2009

William Safire on fulsome

Because they are not privy to President Obama’s BlackBerry number, and because they can find my e-mail address printed invitingly at the bottom of this column, the legion of grammanatics — those stern prescriptivists living in syntax who make up the Gotcha! Gang — write to me with examples of presidential errors in English accompanied by the message “Tell him to cut it out.”

In a speech to the National Governors Association last month, President Obama said about his first stimulus package, “I just want to make sure that we’re having an honest debate and presenting to the American people a fulsome accounting of what is going on in this program.”

He meant full, in the sense of “complete,” even “abundant” or “copious,” which is what that wordmeant in the Middle Ages. But by the 16th century, fulsome’s meaning had taken “full” overboard, to “satiating, cloying, excessive.” Shakespeare used it often, meaning “loathsome” and “rank with lust.” The O.E.D. defines its application to language and style as “offensive to good taste . . . from being ‘over-done.’ Now chiefly used in reference to gross or excessive flattery.”


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