Saturday, July 19, 2008

Oh the horror.

This is me cashing in on a) public service announcements, b) pedantry, and c) media bashing.

Here is a word: enormity.

Here's what the word enormity means in the OED: 1 extreme wickedness. 2 an act of extreme wickedness. 3 a serious error. 4 disp. great size; enormousness.

See the disp. next to #4? This requires, in my dictionary, an explanation. Here is that explanation: Usage The use of enormity in sense 4 is often found, e.g. the enormity of the problem, but is regarded as incorrect by many people.

Just in case my dictionary is flawed I googled and came up with this and this and this.

Now, given the first three meanings and the usage problem mentioned in regard to #4 one would think that people would approach this word with caution and, perhaps, use it appropriately - preferably when they want to invoke the word's other meanings. One would think...but then this is a word that one approaches with caution. Not so the media. I've often heard it used inappropriately recently but not to such amusing effect as on the news earlier when newsman spoke of the enormity of some little actors re-enacting a rather boring biblical scene. They were, apparently, overcome with the enormity of their act. The enormousness, apparently, though the case could very well be made for the other.

24 comments:

Al Cad said...

Yeah, but what does the internet know?! According to my trusty Encarta Dictionary (one of MS’s few decent programs), ‘enormity’ is defined thusly:

(1) wickedness, (2) extremely wicked deed, (3) immensity, (4) great significance. (3) is further described as “an extreme greatness of size, amount, or degree that is overwhelming”, and (4) as “great importance and consequence”.

And I would go along with that. While that sense that something is overwhelming gives a slightly negative connotation, there are, I would say, situations the word could properly be used with a positive slant. “The enormity of this medical discovery would not be realised for another century.”

Encarta also sensibly suggests avoiding the awkward word ‘enormousness’, but replacing it with the likes of ‘immensity’ or ‘vastness’ rather than ‘enormity’.

Of course, in the case of the religious re-enactment, the better descriptive noun would be ‘imbecility’...

TimT said...

the enormity of some little actors re-enacting a rather boring biblical scene.

The enormity of this underwhelms me.

nailpolishblues said...

Al, let us bow to a higher authority - what once was (and shall be again) the history department of the University of Sydney. They agree with me. There is no higher authority in this matter. That is all.

Tim, yes, yes, yes...um...

Al Cad said...

Yeah, but the Dean only backs you up because you’re holding the matter of the dugong over him.

*refuses to bow*

Mark said...

I agree, but think enormousness might be on its way out, since it doesn't sound like a real word wot smart people use.

nailpolishblues said...

Mark agrees with me? Mark agrees with me? Horrible that we should change a word's meaning out of nothing more than snobbery. You wouldn't catch me being snobbish about words.

Dale Slamma said...

Once my left big toe was enormous. I dropped a tin on it, maybe it was a can. It was either a tin or a can.

Al Cad said...

I believe you’ll find that was a tin can, Dale.

The reason I’d suggest the new meanings of enormity have emerged is need. In the example I gave, “The enormity of this medical discovery would not be realised for another century” there is arguably no other single word that would do. There is a distinction between language being abused through ignorance and evolving through need, though the one often leads to the other.

TimT said...

Nice argument, Al C, though the case that you give there sounds more like a badly-written cliche than a legitimate new use of the word. I don't see why 'importance' couldn't stand in for 'enormity' in that sentence.

There are cases in which the 'language is evolving' argument can be appropriated more as a justification for one's own mistakes or confusion over appropriate terms; or when it can be used in defence of the language misuse of others, rather than to (legitimately) describe the processes by which a language over time can evolve. This would seem to be one of those cases, I'm afraid, old bean.

nailpolishblues said...

So.....just a quick count: Mark and Tim agree with me [world ending apparently], Al, presumably, is playing devil's advocate, and Dale is off with the pixies and once had a sore toe.

Okay.

Al Cad said...

Meh, being in the minority doesn’t bother me. If the majority was always right, George W would be an outstanding President rather than a dangerous fuckwit.

I wonder what Alexis, Baron von Harlot has to say on the matter...

nailpolishblues said...

“The enormity of this medical discovery would not be realised for another century”

I think this can be pretty ambiguous - the context would really be needed to know if you meant bigness or some kind of error.

Alexis, Baron von Harlot said...

Did someone call? I'm maintaining my neutrality, in a rare fit of not really caring. If we were talking about "disinterested", though, well, that'd be another story and then some.

nailpolishblues said...

*snort*

Enlighten me with your disinterestednessness, oh gracious Baron etc.

Al Cad said...

Ooh, I feel like I just invoked a spirit – Alexis, Spirit of Linguistics!

Importance doesn’t cut it at all, btw. “Ruth drilled into Tim the importance of remembering the dog food.” The word has lost its, well, importance, and at best means significance, a long way short of the great or historic significance denoted by enormity.

Nails, I’m not playing devil’s advocate (as entertaining as that can be). I think meanings 3 and 4 above are wholly legitimate, and your links above back this up. Merriam-Webster, talking about those who object to meanings other than extreme wickedness says “Those who urge such a limitation may not recognize the subtlety with which enormity is actually used”, and goes on to describe this subtlety. The Free Dictionary contains a HarperCollins definition which concurs with meaning 3. Only definitions sourced from the American Heritage Dictionary get in a strop about the non-wickedness meanings. Mind you, it’ll probably be 2050 before the OED comes around...

Mark said...

I'm definitely with Tim and Shelley here. I think there are plenty of other words that could have been used instead of 'enormity' - 'enormousness' and 'immensity,' for example. Words like 'importance' and 'significance' could also be used, with added superlatives to jolt the audience out of their usual stupor if necessary. Perhaps, one day, we might even be prepared to expose the common public to the word 'supererogatory.'

Al Cad said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Al Cad said...

Here is the usage note from Merriam-Webster in full:

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>.

*returns to reading How to Win Friends and Influence People (chapter one, paragraph one)*

nailpolishblues said...

Self help books? Oh my. In the interests of harmony/making this post look more interesting than it actually is I ask that you desist, Al, and allow us to agree to disagree.*





*Stop now or I'll tan your arse. Yeah?

Al Cad said...

That’s very considerate of you, that being the one part of my body that normally misses out on a good tan...

Btw, was joking about the Dale Carnegie book – as if!

nailpolishblues said...

Oh lookee, I just found a Dale that I don't like. The horror!

Dale Slamma said...

A Dale that you don't like! That seems somehow impossible, the enormity of this information has made me turn my electric blanket down a notch.

nailpolishblues said...

I know, Lady Slamma, it seems a trifle unnatural to me too. Doesn't make it any less cold though.

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