In Judith Warner’s New York Times blog this week, she writes Tears to Remember, shares tears of joy and relief over an election result that, she says, eclipses September 11th in how it will shape the world of her children.
As I read these items through the RSS feeds, the first things I see of an item are its headline (the RSS title tag) and a brief summary (the RSS description tag), and often neither of those were written by the item’s author. In this case, the title probably was written by Ms Warner, but the description, the summary, probably was not.
It read thus:
The author wonders if her children will understand the enormity of Barack Obama’s achievement.“Enormity” is a tricky word: it doesn’t mean what it looks like it might.
“Enormous”, of course, means very, very large, indeed, but to understand “enormity” we have to go back to the original meaning of “enormous”, sense 2 below, now labelled “archaic” by American Heritage:
enormous adj.The Latin root simply means “out of the norm”, and over time “enormous” has come to mean abnormally large, rather than abnormally bad.
1. Very great in size, extent, number, or degree; immense.
2. Archaic. Very wicked; heinous.
“Enormity“ has not made that shift in meaning. Again, from American Heritage:
1. The quality of passing all moral bounds; excessive wickedness or outrageousness.
2. A monstrous offense or evil; outrage.
The events of 11 September, 2001, may certainly be described with the word “enormity”. The eclipsing event that Ms Warner writes about — the election of our first non-white president — is by current terms an enormous achievement, but by current terms involves no enormity. To be sure, there are those who think of the election of President Obama as a monstrous offense, but Ms Warner clearly does not play on those swings.
One can wonder when “enormity” will go the way of “enormous” and make that change in meaning, especially when the blurb-writers for no less an authority than the New York Times, once a fortress of correct usage, drift that way.
But it isn’t there yet.