Thursday, January 21, 2016

The enormousness of "enormity"

Can't imagine how I've managed to be ignorant (blissfully) of this nit-pick. No one who's serious about such things can be without Webster's Dictionary of English Usage (first published in 1989). Everyone may have their [sic] preferences and I have mine, but it's foolish to presume that they amount to much more than that. Webster's concluding paragraph from its documentary four columns is:

We agree with these two commentators [one of whom, William Safire]. We have seen that there is no clear basis for the "rule" at all [a common conclusion]. We suggest that you follow the writers rather than the critics: writers use enormity with a richness and subtlety that the critics have failed to take account of. The stigmatized sense is entirely standard and has been for more than a century and a half.

My purpose in this post is more to call attention to the work cited than to engage in the dispute. I haven't yet summoned sufficient interest to read the full entry.


Terry said...

O,pish, Tim. I suppose on that basis we have to accept all common mispronunciations of English words, exquisite, for example.

Tim said...

“common mispronunciations” — an oxymoron, that? I suppose not if by it you mean mispronunciations by commoners. I’ve no idea how you would pronounce “exquisite” but I’ll bet by your standards you’d mispronounce “summarily”. Once again, to elevate the discussion, I’ll refer to and recommend C. H. Elster’s The Big Book of Beastly Mispronunciations. I won’t pretend mispronunciations don’t set me teeth on edge, e.g. “basil,” but I bite my tongue.

Terry said...

Not familiar with Elster and his background, nor am I particularly interested in backgrounds, but regarding "enormity," let me refer you to a more standard text, Fowler's Modern English Usage. Then we won't need to worry about your biting your tongue on basil.

Tim said...

Well, of course I wouldn't have any tongue left if I were in the habit of biting it, literally. The NGA has some very learned and entertaining lecturers, who are particularly well informed about Italian art (and have spent more months in Italy than I). Neither one, in fact, pronounces "patina" correctly. I would like to think they're talking down to their audience but other evidence persuades me otherwise.
We all love Fowler. I bought my copy in my Freshman year. Aside from entertainment (and worthwhile advice) such books are most notable for what they include and don't include. No mention in Fowler of "basil" or "patina". There was no need to. Chambers found no need to either (then, 1998; or there, Great Britain).
Incidentally, Johnson's first definition of "enormity" is "Deviation from rule; irregularity." His only definition of "enormousness" is "Immeasurable wickedness."