“If I had a world of my own, everything would be nonsense. Nothing would be what it is, because everything would be what it isn’t…” (Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll)
In a ‘post-truth’ world, like Alice in Wonderland, we might all be forgiven for occasionally wondering whether everything is in fact nonsense. Certainly, the English language seems to present us with an inordinate number of words which can mean two completely opposite things. The inherent contradiction that this represents was brought home to me the other day when a friend pointed out that Boris Johnson’s apology for ‘partygate’ – the allegedly impromptu gathering in the garden of Number 10 – had been described as ‘fulsome’ by at least two MPs. Whilst Chris Philp said the Prime Minister had “apologised really fulsomely for what happened. He did it publicly, and he did it fulsomely”, Christopher Chope went on to congratulate him on his “most abject and fulsome apology”.
My friend was confused and rightly so. The adjective ‘fulsome’ can be both positive and negative in its meaning. One would imagine that a word with the root ‘full’ and the suffix ‘-some’ would follow the same pattern as words such as, loathsome, bothersome, and tiresome. However, as in many aspects of our language, there are exceptions, and it seems ‘fulsome’ is one of them, along with ‘peruse’ and ‘sanction’. The intended meaning of such ‘Janus words’ (also known as contranyms, antagonyms, and auto-antonyms) can usually be ascertained by context, but not always, and as such, can offer plenty of scope for both misunderstanding and humour.
Collins dictionary says: ‘If you describe expressions of praise, apology, or gratitude as fulsome, you disapprove of them because they are exaggerated and elaborate, so that they sound insincere.’1. The same source also provides a second description of the word as meaning ‘full, rich or abundant’, but it adds the salutary warning on usage: “The use of fulsome to mean extremely complimentary or full, rich or abundant is common in journalism, but should be avoided in other kinds of writing.”
You have been warned, fulsomely!