Sunday, July 31, 2011

Missed opportunity.

You know what grinds me to a halt? The curb-stomping that the word "enormity" takes at the hands of the illiterati these days.

"Enormity" does not mean "big", Mr. Science Fiction Author. Every time your character leans against the porthole and gazes out at the "enormity of the universe", I want to beat you to your knees with an unabridged dictionary. Enormity refers to monstrous wickedness: Your hero can gaze in wonder at the enormousness of the red deserts of Mars and in horror at the enormity of the cannibal feasts taking place thereon.

Enormity, however, is such a perfectly cromulent word that the rare chance to use it properly in a sentence should never be missed. To wit:
Those of you in business for yourselves can speak with aplomb on the sheer immensity of regulatory compliance and how it strangles the provision of goods and services in America.
You know, Bill, "enormity" would have worked perfectly there.


Jake (formerly Riposte3) said...

Unfortunately, that assault dictionary has accepted the error as correct due to its common use.

"Enormity, some people insist, is improperly used to denote large size. They insist on enormousness for this meaning, and would limit enormity to the meaning “great wickedness.” Those who urge such a limitation may not recognize the subtlety with which enormity is actually used. It regularly denotes a considerable departure from the expected or normal [they awakened; they sat up; and then the enormity of their situation burst upon them. “How did the fire start?” — John Steinbeck]. When used to denote large size, either literal or figurative, it usually suggests something so large as to seem overwhelming [no intermediate zone of study. Either the enormity of the desert or the sight of a tiny flower — Paul Theroux] [the enormity of the task of teachers in slum schools — J. B. Conant] and may even be used to suggest both great size and deviation from morality [the enormity of existing stockpiles of atomic weapons — New Republic]. It can also emphasize the momentousness of what has happened [the sombre enormity of the Russian Revolution — George Steiner] or of its consequences [perceived as no one in the family could the enormity of the misfortune — E. L. Doctorow]."

Merriam-webster Dictionary, enormity

Personally, I feel the same way about the whole nauseous/nauseated confusion. They have both fallen prey to the whole "people have been using it wrong for so long that it has become right" idiocy.

Dave said...

"Unfortunately, that assault dictionary has accepted the error as correct due to its common use."

That's how you know a language isn't dead; it continues to grow and change. Or mayhapf thou wouldf't speak af though the Queen'f Englifh hath never changed? Or go back to Chaucer-style and spell however you want, which most of the web is already doing anyways.

Tam said...

That comment sucked. (I'm using "sucked", of course, to mean "rocked out awesomely". I realize this usage of "sucked" is in the minority now, but somebody's gotta get the ball rolling on the definition shift. ;) )

Shermlock Shomes said...

Martian cannibalism? Oh, we'll see how that googles. :p

Chuck Pergiel said...

If you can't use enormity to mean big, then you might be forced to use enormousness, which really has too many letters to be a real word.

Besides, just because you can't see slasher McSlashy slashing innocents to bits when you look out the porthole of your spaceship does not mean the universe is not monstrously wicked.

Shrimp said...

Oh, Tam, that was bad! Of course, by bad, I mean, good. So it sucked, or totally rocked, or something. know what I mean, I think.

Justthisguy said...

Then there are the people who'll call a shirt a button-down shirt even if it has loose floppy collar points with no buttonholes in them.

Anonymous said...

Not sure "aplomb" was a bullseye for old Bill in that context either.


Old Grouch said...

Then there's this one, from today's Wall Street Journal, in an article titled "Chinese Media Resist Curbs On Coverage of Train Crash":
"Authorities spent the weekend trying to diffuse pressure from victims' families seeking answers..."
(I thought they intended to curb the coverage, not propagate it.)

michael edelman said...

I have long suspected that such shifts in meaning are due to authors and speakers who use a word in a metaphorical sense, after which it's picked up and used in the same way, but in a literal sense. Some 19thC British scrivener speaks of the "enormity of the task" or how the Light Brigade was "decimated", and suddenly the words have a whole new meaning. So while "mayhem" may have once required the loss of limbs, today it's optional.