Le Mot Juste?

Both John McCain and Barack Obama gave fine speeches last night. Mr. McCain gave an honorable and gentlemanly address that was untainted by bitterness, and Mr. Obama’s speech was both sober and uplifting. I must comment on one thing in particular, before I am scooped by all the language mavens out there: Mr. Obama’s phrase “the enormity of the task that lies ahead”.

The word enormity refers, in careful usage, not to hugeness, but to monstrosity of evil — as in “the world stood aghast at the enormity of Germany’s crimes”. I was startled to hear Mr. Obama, who is very careful with language, and who obviously put a great deal of effort into this speech, use this word. I wonder if he meant to.


  1. Kevin Kim says


    The Webster reference to which you linked has a paragraph at the bottom that deals with this very question, and seems to come down on the side of the non-purists:

    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 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 enormity of the desert or the sight of a tiny flower — Paul Theroux> 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 enormity of existing stockpiles of atomic weapons — New Republic>. It can also emphasize the momentousness of what has happened enormity of the Russian Revolution — George Steiner> or of its consequences enormity of the misfortune — E. L. Doctorow>.

    I can’t read Obama’s mind, but I suspect his usage of the word is most in line with the above-referenced quote from JB Conant.

    Going “meta” for a moment: this brings up the question of whether dictionaries serve as authorities to which one can appeal. Dictionaries often walk a fine line between being prescriptive and being descriptive. The above paragraph seems to want to say, with authority, that this is how the word is actually used (a very Kevin-style tactic, the conflation of “is” with “ought”), the implication being that those usages are kosher. Such an argument won’t impress purists… but the concept of purism is, in debates about language, almost always synonymous with traditionalism in my mind.


    Posted November 5, 2008 at 3:41 pm | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Hi Kevin,

    Yes, I dithered about offering that link. I thought it would be more interesting to go ahead and use it. I was interested to see “enormity of the task” as one of the citations.

    As for “some people insist”: I guess I’m the sort of person they were thinking of. I’m all for useful neologisms, but I hate to see meaningful discriminations being lost.

    I do realize that languages are living things, but traditionalism in usage is also an important bulwark against chaos, I think.

    Posted November 5, 2008 at 3:56 pm | Permalink
  3. Charles says

    Most dictionaries these days tend toward description rather than prescription. It just seems to be the way the linguistic winds are blowing. I have slowly been moving away from purism in recent years, although there are still line I will not cross. “Enormity” for me, though, is not one of those lines.

    As you know, language changes, and words that meant a certain thing ages ago mean something entirely different today. I suppose it’s just a matter of everyone who remembers the original usage dying out before the new usage becomes completely accepted.

    Posted November 5, 2008 at 10:04 pm | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says

    Well, again, Charles, I don’t mind change, but I don’t like to lose the fine distinctions of meaning that differentiate related words. For example, there are useful differences between “comprise” and “compose”, say, or between “imply” and “infer” — but people now seem to treat them as synonyms. That’s the sort of change that brings out the “purist” in me. Change I can’t believe in, you might say.

    Posted November 5, 2008 at 10:50 pm | Permalink
  5. Charles says

    I don’t see why you’re so worried about losing fine distinction. At the rate people are making up words these days, we’re going to have to start retiring a whole bunch soon anyway.

    Just kidding. I do see your point, I just wonder if there is anything that can really be done about it. I don’t mean to sound defeatist, but… what can be done?

    (I’ve heard of people using “comprise” and “compose” as synonyms, but not “imply” and “infer,” I don’t think. That one seems a stretch even to me.)

    Posted November 6, 2008 at 3:51 am | Permalink
  6. Malcolm says

    Hi Charles,

    Oh, I wasn’t suggesting that anything can be done about it. I just don’t like it, that’s all.

    As for using “infer” to mean “imply”, I’ve heard that one plenty of times. It’s just the tip of the iceberg.

    Posted November 6, 2008 at 11:04 am | Permalink

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