Fulsome Recovery

The 1989 Second Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary will tell you that you’re wrong if your think fulsome means the same as full. If you give a ‘fulsome answer’ to some question (as I’ve noticed many people do), it will tell you that your answer is ‘disgusting, repulsive, odious’, ‘Offensive to good taste’ and ‘gross or excessive’.

Fulsome has had a pejorative meaning since at least the late 14th century. Its original, positive senses meaning, basically, “full, abundant, copious” stopped being used in the early 17th.

Until 2016 that was the record of fulsome in the OED, much to the satisfaction of many a pedant I’m sure. But in that year OED published an update to the entry, which noted that fulsome full made a fulsome recovery in the twentieth century, with citations for the original sense re-emerging from 1868, and new, even more positive senses coined starting in the 1920s. The older sense has overtaken the newer, such that “in many 20th century examples, it is difficult to be certain whether the older [i.e. middle] critical sense or a neutral or even positive sense is intended.”

This prompted me to have a look at what other meanings recorded in OED fall out of use only to be revived or re-invented centuries later. I rounded up about 8,000 such senses, which OED3 marks with a literal gap in the quotation paragraph.

As might be expected, many of these are derived, affixed, and compounded forms which are liable to multiple independent invention, like actionize (last used in 1644, re-coined in 1958), agonist (1687; 1848), functionally (1656; 1820), godsister (1583; 1853), grandmotherless (1424; 1895 – a long one!) and so on.

Others are conscious historical revivals, such as footman (a type of archer), Frenchman (a type of tobacco), or idiot (to mean “an inward-looking person”), or, in a more popular vein, murmuration (of starlings); or else intentional archaisms employed for style (abye,mazedly, muchwhat)

And there are re-borrowings of loanwords, such as beaucoup (1824; 1918), hegemony (1567; 1849), and manzo (1594; 1876).

None of these are as interesting as fulsome, though, with its semantic round-trip from positive to negative and back again.

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