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The Scrivener: Zounds! That's fulsome!

Buxom? Bosom? Fulsome? Enormity?

Researcher, writer and expert guide Brian Barratt takes us on another fascinating and enjoyable journey into the ever-changing meanings of English words.

Your dictionary probably defines 'buxom' as relating to the curves of a woman's body and her bosom. 'Healthily plump' is a term sometimes included. On the other hand, in William Shakespeare's Henry V, you'll find:

Bardolph, a soldier, firm and sound of heart,
And of buxom valour

and in Pericles:

This king unto him took a fere [partner],
Who died and left a female heir,
So buxom, blithe, and full of face,
As heaven had lent her all his grace;

Curvaceous? Healthily plump? No. The meaning of buxom here is lively, cheerful, bright.

150 years after Shakespeare, Dr Samuel Johnson listed several meanings in his great dictionary: (1) obedient; obsequious. (2) gay; lively; brisk. (3) wanton; jolly.

From obedient to healthily plump how did that happen?

'Buxom' developed from an Old English word bugan, meaning 'to bend'. 1,000 years ago it meant 'easily bowed or bent' this became obedient; later submissive; and in the 1300s obliging, affable. By the 1500s and in Shakespeare's time, it was used for bright, lively, and later in good health and eventually, referring to women, plump, comely.

By a logical process of subtly changing usages, the word came to mean almost the opposite of its original meaning. That's the way language can work over many centuries of use.

Incidentally, Shakespeare used 'buxom' only once in each of two of his plays but he used 'bosom' over 120 times in no less than 38 of his works. That might be because 'buxom' is an adjective but 'bosom' is a noun that had been in use for longer and was a common word to denote the chest as a specific part of the human body.

'Bosom' was used about 40 times in the translation of the Bible authorised by King James I around the same time that Shakespeare wrote his plays. In both instances, it had literal and figurative meanings relating to both the body and to the feelings and emotions. It can also be a place of refuge, as in the hymn by Charles Wesley, 'Jesus, lover of my soul, let me to Thy bosom fly'.

It was a merry euphemism in a religious family with whom I occasionally dined about 50 years ago. Devotedly religious, yes, but with a whimsical sense of humour. When asked which part of the chicken he would like, a voluble 8-year-old son very solemnly replied, tongue-in-cheek, 'The bosom please, Mother'.

Another word which Shakespeare did not use very often is 'fulsome'. It appears only five times in his plays. Four uses imply something repulsive or disgusting:

an old tune as 'fat and fulsome to mine ear'

a breath of fulsome dust

I that was wash'd to death with fulsome wine

'Zounds! That's fulsome!'

The fifth usage implies, in a colloquial word, randy:
fulsome ewes [ewes waiting to be served by rams]

All this leads to the obvious question: If fulsome means repulsive, how can praise be fulsome?

The meaning of 'fulsome' in the 13th century was 'abundant', 'copious'. However, too much of something such as spicy food can become difficult to cope with, even nauseating. An over-indulgence in compliments can become hollow flattery. To explain it in a colloquial phrase, something can become 'too much of a muchness'. Hence another slide, over the centuries, from one meaning to another. The implications of 'excessively ingratiating' and 'nauseating' are still with us.

John Howard, then the Prime Minister of Australia, said in December 1997 that he wanted to stress the fulsome commitment of his government to the process of reconciliation. What he actually meant was questioned both in Parliament and in the media. It is for good reason that the Merriam Webster Dictionary advises caution in the use of 'fulsome' because of its ambiguity.

Another word which can get you into deep water because of its ambiguity is 'enormity' One dictionary gives the first meaning as 'great importance, scope or extent'. Another lists as the first meaning 'an outrageous, improper or immoral act'. This can be traced back to the derivation of 'enormous' from the Latin 'enormis' which meant 'out of the normal', hence 'abnormal'.

The meaning of enormous in the 16th century was shocking, wicked. Shakespeare used it to denote disorderly, abnormal, and 'enormity' to denote wickedness and vice, but at the same time it was used to mean of great size and scope.

In 1755, Dr Johnson listed these meanings for 'enormous':

Irregular; out of rule.

Disordered; confused.

Wicked beyond the common measure.

Exceeding in bulk the common measures; always used with some degree of dislike, or horror, or wonder.

Today, we might wonder at the enormous and fulsome influence of some politicians and 'shock jock' media commentators but we could well be horrified, too.

Copyright Brian Barratt 2011


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