Thursday, May 24, 2012

The enormity! The enormity!

Paul Fussell, who died yesterday at 88, may have written (and done) some great stuff, but he’s on my shelf not because of his war writing or lit crit but because of his language snobbery. In the 1983 book “Class: A Guide Through the American Status System,” he devoted a chapter to disparaging the (supposed) motives of people whose usages he disliked and ruling on (supposedly) eternal language verities:*
There may be some passing intimacy between those who think momentarily means in a moment (airline captain over loudspeaker: "We'll be taking off momentarily, folks") and those who know it means for a moment, but it won’t survive much strain.
So it’s amusing to find the New York Times praising his book "The Great War and Modern Memory" by quoting a source -- a published, edited source -- that includes at least two usage problems.
"It is difficult to underestimate Fussell’s influence," Vincent B. Sherry wrote in "The Cambridge Companion to the Literature of the First World War." … "His claims for the meaning of the war are profound and far-reaching; indeed, some have found them hyperbolic. Yet, whether in spite of or because of the enormity of his assertions, Fussell has set the agenda for most of the criticism that has followed him."
First there’s “underestimate” used for "overestimate" – a common enough confusion, but one that Fussell (so far as Google Books can tell) never fell into. Then there’s the use of  "enormity" to mean hugeness instead of awfulness -- no longer a sin in the eyes of most Americans,** but a usage that Fussell mocked in “Class” as ignorant pretension:
Class unfortunates who want to emphasize the largeness of something are frequently betrayed by enormity, as in "The whale was of such an enormity that they could hardly get it in the tank." (Prole version: "The whale was so big they couldn’t hardly get it in the tank.") Elegance is the fatal temptation of the middle class.
I suppose it’s possible that Bruce Weber, who wrote the obit, deliberately chose the Cambridge Companion's encomium so as to administer a posthumous tweak to his subject. If so, I salute him. If not, it’s still a delicious bit of cosmic payback.

* Yes, some of the book is (intentionally) funny; but the language commentary is mostly wild speculation and hostile declamation.  
** In Garner’s Modern American Usage, enormity used (or “misused”) for "immensity" is rated 4 out of 5 on Garner’s language-change index: “Ubiquitous but …”. That is, everyone’s doing it, but a resistant minority still holds its (dwindling) ground.

12 comments:

John Cowan said...

Originally enormity was just 'abnormality', and only later 'moral abnormality, sinfulness'. But even people who claim to use enormity "properly" rarely apply it to trivial matters, which shows the influence of enormous(ness).

Jonathon said...

Maybe I'm showing my youth or my hopelessly middle-class upbringing, but for me, enormity only means "hugeness", and the insistence that it really means "awfulness" seems rather quaint.

And amusingly, the OED marks the "hugeness" meaning as obsolete and says, "Recent examples might perh. be found, but the use is now regarded as incorrect." I have a feeling that a corpus search would show that it's almost exclusively used this way nowadays.

Jan said...

Jonathon: Note, though, that the OED's comment (whenever written)is apparently illustrated only by the 1891 cite, which makes a joke on the two senses of enormity: [1891 N.E.D. at Enormity, Mod. ‘“You have no idea of the enormity of my business transactions”, said an eminent Stock Exchange speculator to a friend. He was perhaps nearer the truth than he intended’.] The earliest allusion to the distinction I find in the usage literature is in Richard Grant White, 1870; the attempt to enforce enormity=awfulness (and suppress enormity=size) seems to have peaked in the mid-20th c.

Ø said...

because of the enormity of his assertions

I'm not convinced that "enormity" means simply "hugeness" here. I read it as more like "extremeness", almost "outrageousness". It may really be on the borderline between the regular guy's "enormousness" and the snob's "monstrousness".

Gregory Lee said...

I wondered what systematic support could be found for interpreting enormity by analogy to enormous. After working my way part way through -ous words starting with a-, I found ambiguous and anonymous, already. So I guess there is some support.

Ø said...

Gregory,

Certainly in many cases Xity is the noun for Xous ("Xousness", so to speak). I suppose you could count this as support for the common (and commonly deplored by nitpickers) modern sense of "enormity", but not strong support.

Of course in many other cases ("perilous", "vinous") there is an adjective Xous but no noun Xity. And in other cases ("probity", "sanity", "laxity") the reverse is true.

Now I want to think of an example (other than X=enorm) of a pair "Xous" and "Xity" that do not correspond semantically in this way.

Bryan M. White said...

He probably gets a pass on "enormity", but that "underestimate" is hilarious.

Marc Leavitt said...

Not to denigrate Mr. Fussell's accomplishment, I read "Class" when it was published. I came away with a muzzy feeling that this guy was suffering from heartburn, and the only passage that stayed in my mind all these years later, is one in which he criticized English muffins for being not English, and to paraphrase, referred to them as unappetizing, doughy lumps of bread. Speaking of encomia,md

Marc Leavitt said...

That should read: "encomia..."

Marc Leavitt said...

Sorry. It should read encomiums.

Jan said...

Marc, I'm OK with either plural, myself! And yes, Fussell heaped contempt on "English muffin" because he claimed it was a marketing term, not a description meaning "what the English call a muffin." On no evidence, of course -- he just thought up nefarious motives as he went along.

john_burke100 said...

"Class" is pretty much a continuous harrumph. But "Great War and Modern Memory" seemed to me a remarkable blend of close reading (of the English war poets), historical narrative (of the trench warfare on the Western Front), and depiction of combat--squalid, terrifying, cruel--by a sure-enough combat veteran. Betty Fussell said he was horrible, and I believe her, but that's a good book all the same.