Monday, 28 November 2011

Enormity and enormousness

Ah, the enormity of it! Just as the use, or to my mind, misuse, by many people of words such as "disinterested" for "uninterested", "fulsome" for "full", "fortuitous" for "fortunate", and "comprise" for "constitute" has led to the appearance of these disputed meanings in the dictionary, the use of "enormity" for "enormousness" (yes, the word does exist) has led the Oxford Dictionary to accept this meaning as well.

"Enormity" really means "monstrous wickedness", although the second meaning, "great size", is given with the warning that many consider it incorrect.

Etymologically, both the adjective and the noun have evolved from the latin enormis, meaning "out of the norm". At first, they both referred to behaviour out of the norm, as in an enormous sin or the enormity of the act. Then the meanings separated, with the adjective coming to mean "out of the norm" in size, as in an enormous building, while the noun retained its moral meaning. But writers accustomed to the adjective in its new sense of "huge" began to use "enormity" as a corresponding noun instead of the awkward "enormousness". Here is an example.

The enormity of the stakes and the long-term nature of the game make the eventual decisions so important. (Times Colonist, 8 September, 2011).

Fowler, subsequent style guides, and the Oxford dictionary all warn against this usage.

Better to say

The huge importance of the stakes  and the long-term nature of the game make the eventual decisions so crucial.

The Guardian (28 November, 2011), on the other hand, in an obituary for Ken Russell, the film maker, uses the word in its proper sense:

It has, of course, to be said that he was capable of almost any enormity in the careless rapture he brought to making his films. He could be dreadfully cruel to his undoubted talent, almost as if he was defying himself, let alone those who supported him.

Here the writer is using the word to refer to Russell's habit of shocking his public by doing something outrageous or "out of the norm".

When a word such as "enormity" has an accepted, long-standing, logical meaning, why not avoid the use of other disputed meanings that leads to confusion?

Saturday, 26 November 2011

Hoi polloi

"I was having high tea at the Empress recently," said an acquaintance recently. "Keeping company with the hoi polloi."

On the contrary! The hoi polloi, the masses, were outside. Perhaps she was keeping company with the hoighty-toighty.

Nor does Gary Mason get it right when he writes in the Globe (November 9, 2011) of the occupiers in Vancouver as follows:

A leaderless movement that initially attracted a disparate collection of well-meaning activists along with just plain folk was ultimately hijacked by a hoi polloi with questionable ambitions. 

The hoi polloi are the common people in general, not a faction. In fact, some purists would argue that the indefinite article is redundant, since it is already there in Greek -- "hoi" means "the" and "polloi" means "many"-- and so we should speak of hoi polloi and not the hoi polloi. Redundant or not, it is illogical to write of a hoi-polloi, since that would be to say, literally, "a the many".

As the word "hijacked' implies, the occupier movement was taken over by a minority group with its "questionable ambitions", certainly not by the masses, or hoi polloi.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Southey (Robert) and other surprising pronunciations

A few days ago I was watching a documentary. I heard an English academic pronounce the Laker poet Robert Southey's surname with the vowel sound of "cow" and not "dust", as I've always pronounced it.

What? I thought. He should know better than that, but I had better check. Indeed, I was wrong, and the best evidence of the correct pronunciation is that Byron rhymed his name with "mouthy" in Don Juan. Apparently, Southey himself pronounced his name with the "ow" sound, and was annoyed that southerners would pronounce it with the short "u".

"Southern" and "southerly" are pronounced as "suthern" and "sutherly", not retaining the sound of "south", so southerners must have assumed that Southey would pronounce his name in the same way.

The question is, should I now pronounce it correctly and be thought incorrect? I have never been quite game enough to pronounce "forte" and "schism as they should be pronounced, i.e., as "fort" rather than "fortay", and "sism" rather than "skism".

However, the spelling and pronunciation of the word "pronunciation" itself is not open to dispute. "Pronounce" loses its "u", and the "ow" sound, when it becomes the noun "pronunciation".

Similarly, "denounce" becomes "denunciation" and "renounce" becomes "renunciation". Interestingly, we don't make an "annunciation" over the loud speaker system -- that special announcement was reserved for the angel Gabriel.

On a technical note, if you are still with me, I have changed the URL of my blogs by dropping the hyphens previously in "carolusgrammaticus" and "carolusperegrinator". I wanted the spelling to be consistent with that of the address of a website I have set up. If you are interested, you can visit You can get to my blogs from there as well.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Feeling bad

One of my acquaintances prides himself on his correct grammar. Reasoning that "bad" is an adjective and "feel" is a verb, and knowing that a verb can be modified only by an adverb, he would say "I feel badly...." rather than "I feel bad ...."

As it happens, he is wrong. In this case "bad" or "badly" is not modifying the verb "feel", but describing the state of mind of the person, so the adjective is required: just as one feels "sad" rather than "sadly", or like Maria in the song, "pretty" rather than "prettily".

Thus it is incorrect to say:

I feel badly about hurting her feelings.

And correct to say,

I feel bad about hurting her feelings.

Friday, 4 November 2011

Criterion and criteria

"Criterion", "phenomenon", "automaton" and "polyhedron", etc., are borrowings from classical Greek with their plural form ending in "a", as in one automaton but several automata, an interesting phenomenon but unusual phenomena. Because the plural form of these words has the same ending as the singular form of certain nouns borrowed from Latin, such as "alumna" or "formula", and other Greek words from a different declension, such as "dilemma" and "enigma", it is sometimes mistakenly assumed that criteria, phenomena, automata, etc, are in fact singular nouns. This was the case in today's Globe and Mail:

Bilingualism is listed as a criteria of the job.

This should read:

Bilingualism is listed as a criterion of the job.