Posts Tagged ‘middle english’

Hello & Happy New Year,

This week’s word is thanks to my friend Deirdre who mentioned its murky ambiguity when we were hiking last weekend. Fulsome, it transpires, has two, contradictory meanings.

My much-used 1984 Collins English Dictionary simply refers readers from fulsome (pronunciation here) to the definition for full, but the history of this word is far from simple.

Merriam-Webster explains this word, whose first use was in the 1300s, was originally a Middle English version of itself – fulsom coming directly from compounding the words full and some. However its meaning wasn’t the same then. Back then fulsome meant cloying or over the top. Interestingly the OED claims the word dates to 1250 and meant abundant originally so the confusion may go “way back”.

The effusive meaning persisted but the idea of fulsome as abundant gained ground through the 1600s, leaving wordsmiths in a quandary. By the 1800s the positive sense died away and even left dictionaries but by the 1900s the positive sense overtook the negative, leaving the dictionaries wrong-footed.

A fulsome huggle of teds

In modern use fulsome can again, go either way. If the head of state gives fulsome praise or a fulsome apology to a politician, it’s now almost impossible to tell if that’s a good or a bad thing. Best advice? Steer clear of fulsome until the meaning settles because using it is bound to cause confusion.

Until next time I wish you a fulsome January,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

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I’ve chosen two Middle English words this week, both coming from Geoffrey Chaucer’s surprisingly funny “Canterbury Tales” which I read and reviewed this year for my 501 Books Reading Challenge.

The first is bidaffed (I presume this is pronounced as bee-daff-ed, but my Middle English is a little rusty on accent!). It means to make a fool of someone or to outwit them. Any word relating to folly is welcome here at WordFoolery, how could I resist this one? Plus it raises the charming mental image of bedecking an enemy with daffodils to make them look idiotic.

The second is fordrunk¬† (presumably pronounced “four-drunk”, as in a German pronunciation) and it means to be very drunk, or addicted to drink. I suspect being bidaffed and fordrunk may happen at the same time.

I think both of these words deserve a long over-due comeback. What do you think?

Many thanks to the notes in my copy of Canterbury Tales and to the excellent online Middle English Dictionary at University of Michigan for helping with my definitions this week.

Until next week, happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,


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