Friday, August 6, 2010

Oh, the enormity of it all

Listening to talk radio while driving round town, I heard a discussion on the news from the Gulf oil spill, particularly the story of where the oil has gone. One chap offered that you have to compare the gallons of oil gushing into the Gulf waters with the "enormity of the ocean." This is at least the third time recently I have heard someone say much the same thing in this context—the enormity of the Gulf, the enormity of the earth's seas.

I'd like to gently remind anyone tempted to say something along these lines that "enormity" does not mean "enormousness." Consulting holy writ—the OED—one finds the definition as "extreme wickedness" or "an act of extreme wickedness."

Yes, I know. Words change through usage. Entropy cannot be reversed. "So Eden sank to grief, So dawn goes down to day." No doubt someday "enormity" will be accepted fully as the noun form of "enormous." But for now let's resist. Let's keep a little bit of gold tucked away in our vocabularies as long as we can.

When you stand on a seashore, by all means feel the vastness, the immensity, the utter enormousness of the ocean. Just please do not commit a linguistic enormity.

[Today's literary reference is to Robert Frost.]

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