Isaac Asimov said, “The English language is the finest tool for communication ever invented. Since it is used indiscriminately by hundreds of millions, it is no wonder that it is so badly misused so often.”
One of the most misused words in English is “noisome,” which means, “offensive, foul, harmful, or damaging.” It does not now, nor has it ever, meant “noisy.”
Noisy and noisome aren’t even related linguistically. Noise/noisy arose from the Old French verb noiser/noisier (to make an outcry; to quarrel). It’s been in English since about 1400. That is, it came into Late Middle English.
Noisome is also Late Middle English its root being noy (harmful). Annoy and obnoxious share this same root. By 1440, noisome meant “offensive,” and by 1577, “ill-smelling.”
Even more widely abused is “fulsome.” Hardly anyone quoted using this word knows its meaning. Unfortunately, those who do get quoted are usually important people.
Representing President George W. Bush in the Florida vote-counting scandal, Attorney Theodore Olson told the U.S. Supreme Court, “(The case is) supposed to go forward with a more fulsome process.” Although Olson clearly wanted to say, “a fuller” or “more complete” process, he said something entirely different since fulsome carries a negative meaning — insincere, offensive, nasty, foul, disgusting.
Olson isn’t alone in misunderstanding this word. In 1987, President Ronald Reagan announced, “I got a very fulsome apology from the president of Iraq.”
As well, former U.S. Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, used the expression “fulsome praise” on the cover of his autobiography.
American politicians aren’t the only ones to make this mistake. Here’s a Canadian example — a recent one. In early March of 2015 on the CBC’s Power and Politics, Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister for Intergovernmental Affairs, Paul Calandra, promised his government would use “fulsome effort” in keeping terrorism at bay. Calandra was obviously trying to say government would make “every possible” effort but, sadly, he didn’t say that.
All usage experts advise against employing fulsome this way.
American Heritage: “Fulsome is often misapplied, especially in ‘fulsome praise’ by those who think the term equivalent to full and abundant.”
Success with Words: “Be aware that in the established current usage, fulsome is a strongly negative term.”
The Dictionary of Unendurable English: “Fulsome means insincere, effusively flattering and not abundant, effusive, or enthusiastic.”
Contemporary Usage: “Again and again, well-intentioned people use fulsome under the mistaken impression that they are using a term of commendation.”
Robert Hartwell Fiske points out that just because one word resembles another, it doesn’t mean their meanings are related (Unendurable English).
Still, Fowler presents another aspect. He notes that fulsome once did mean “copious, abundant.” Although this meaning had completely disappeared by the 16th century, in the second half of the 20th century, “fulsome began to be used in favourable meanings.”
Fowler says this newer use of the word is more common in North American than in British English. He recommends avoiding this revived meaning. So do I.
But, since words and their meanings do change, let’s not be too surprised when fulsome meaning “extravagant, abundant,” once again becomes Standard English.