WORDSWORDSWORDS#5 (Fulsome/Peruse)


If you ask most people about the words listed above--"fulsome" and "peruse", you would likely be told that the first word means "highly" or "a lot of" and the latter means "to give something the quick once-over". As you may have guessed from prior columns, both of these responses would be wrong in my book, no matter how many people think it so. But there are good reasons why they are wrong!

To be fair, the meaning of "fulsome" seems to be changing rapidly. When someone says she gave a fulsome apology, it sure sounds like it was complete and sincere. The true meaning of "fulsome" is "excessive to the point of disgust". When someone receives fulsome praise, for instance, it doesn't mean he or she gets a standing ovation. It means people clapped and cheered to such a degree, far beyond the value of the thing being clapped for, as to indicate derision or sarcasm. When you see someone "sucking up" to the boss or a teacher, that would be an example of "fulsome" praise. It's by definition insincere. A classic sitcom example would be the late but legendary Eddie Haskell on Leave it to Beaver, who would always tell the Beave's mom how lovely she looked while plotting some mischief behind her back.

Back in the 13th Century, "fulsome" actually did mean "copious" or "full of", which it sounds like, and which is probably the reason the word is transforming as we speak.

"Peruse" is changing for a different reason. When you ask someone to peruse your paper, let's say, listen for how often the request is phrased "Just peruse this for me, will you?" It's that "just" that leads people to believe that the request is a relatively simple one. The actual meaning of "peruse" is to pore over something, to scrutinize it with care". When a doctoral candidate asked me to peruse his 600-page doctoral dissertation on the Italian Renaissance, I knew I was in for quite the chore. On the other hand, Washington Irving and Samuel Johnson both used the word and completely diverged on the word'smeaning.

Merriam-Webster lists the following in its usage note for the word:

What to Know

Peruse can mean "to read something in a relaxed way, or skim" and can also mean "to read something carefully or in detail." Peruse is thus a contronym because it has multiple definitions that seem contradict each other. That's a new word for us--Contronym. In effect, both of these words fall under this category.