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Language change we can believe in

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April November 8, 2008 12:33 PM

Ronald Reagan believed that enormity meant "vastness": ''I have always been well aware of the enormity of [the job of President]," he said in 1981. William Safire thought that was just fine: "The time has come to abandon the ramparts on enormity's connotations of wickedness," he wrote that same year in his New York Times language column.

Bill Clinton agreed. "Our support of reform must combine patience for the enormity of the task and vigilance for our fundamental interests," he said in his 1994 State of the Union speech.

Lynne Cheney, wife of the vice president, education activist, and Ph.D. in English, did too: "The enormity of the honor ... is just sinking in," Cheney said, more than once, after her husband's nomination.

Now Barack Obama is on the bandwagon; he has spoken of "the enormity of the task that lies ahead" in both post-election speeches.

Will this be the administration that ends the nitpicking over enormity?

A few critics are already tut-tutting, because for a century and more we've been told by usage writers to use enormity only for "great wickedness."

Dictionaries have not necessarily agreed. Webster's Second unabridged (1934, 1959) defined enormity as "State or quality of exceeding a measure or rule, or of being immoderate, monstrous, or outrageous." And the earliest English sense, says the OED, was "Divergence from a normal standard or type," reflecting the etymology of the word, literally "outside the norm."

The use of enormity to mean merely "vastness" dates to the late 18th century; in the late 19th, an editor of the OED added the note "this use is now regarded as incorrect." The American Heritage Usage Panel, as of 2002, agreed, by a margin of 59 percent to 41 percent. But the disapproval rating was down sharply from 1967, when 93 percent rejected enormity for "hugeness."

And the naysayers have never prevailed upon actual usage, as the multitude of quotations under enormity in Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage shows. The sense presidential speechwriters like -- implying "a size that is daunting or overwhelming" -- is one of the commoner figurative uses.

Grant Barrett, language blogger and co-host of the radio show "A Way With Words," takes a middle ground on enormity: He doesn't disapprove of Obama's usage, "but I also believe that since the term is a bit 'skunked,' -- that is, there is a dispute about proper usage -- that in a speech of historical importance it should have been avoided."

On the other hand, this latest presidential seal of approval may help it get un-skunked faster. Wouldn't it be nice if four years from now, the dispute over enormity was forgotten?

(Photo: Rick Bowmer/Associated Press)

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Rules and realities of English usage from Boston Globe Ideas columnist Jan Freeman.
Jan Freeman, a former Boston Globe editor, has been writing the weekly column The Word since 1997. E-mail her at

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