Someone on the WELL recently lamented the common “misuse” of the word enormity to mean greatness in size, when it “really” means great wickedness.

I’ve heard that one a thousand times, of course. And the debate that always follows is between those who, on the one hand, say that a word means whatever the majority of people commonly use it to mean and you can’t stop language from changing; and those who, on the other hand, say that an error is still an error even if it’s widely enough used to make it into Merriam-Webster and fastidious writers should want to be careful about preserving these nuances of meaning.

After another go-round of the debate a couple of years ago, though, I took the time to look the word up in the Oxford English Dictionary, and then did a quick Google search to get some context about the authors and works the OED cited. And as a result, I’ve become an advocate of using enormity in just the way my online buddy was deploring. In fact, I feel it would be unfastidious not to. Here’s why:

Going by etymology alone, enormity looks like it should mean simply the state or quality (-ity) of being out of (e-) the norm. And sure enough, if you look up the word in the OED you find that it meant no more than that in some of its earliest known uses, which were in the 1500s. The OED also has citations from as late as 1865 in which the word plainly carries no connotation of moral evil.

Sure, right from the start the word was sometimes used to connote wickedness, especially in religious writing. And it would seem — judging from the citations themselves and from what I could find out about the works they are from — it picked up this connotation from an assumption that anything that is out of the norm is, perforce, wicked.

But it seems not to have occurred to people that the word always had to have a moral connotation, that the word could in fact have no other connotation but that of wickedness, until the Victorian era — a time that, after all, gave us the obsessive-compulsive codification of English grammar (forced into models based on Greek and Latin) and the invention of hundreds of previously unheard-of and yet suddenly inflexible rules of English usage.

Not just grammar, of course. It was a time possessed by a popular mania for turning every aspect of life — meals, clothing, conversation, public speaking, friendship, love, grief — into a test of how well you’d memorized the persnickety details of the appropriate manual of behavior. The Victorians could detect grave deficiencies of character in anyone who merely used the wrong fork, wrote on paper of the wrong dimensions, wore the wrong colors of clothing at the wrong time of day or year or life, or paid one’s visits to one’s neighbors in the wrong order. And someone who lived altogether the wrong sort of life, not just because he or she had gotten confused about the Rules of Decent Society but actually didn’t care about following them at all, was indeed generally regarded as wicked.

Well, screw that thinking. Given that as a writer and editor I long ago decided that I see nothing wrong with split infinitives and sentences that end with prepositions and using leg instead of limb when referring to a person and dozens of other “rules” of English invented by the Victorians; given that I am deeply opposed to the idea that just to be outside the norm is to be wicked; and given that the more I look at it, the more it looks like what is usually presented to us as being the “older” and more correct meaning of the word is actually just a blip in the history of its usage, I have decided that I am fine with using enormity to mean anything that is far outside the norm, whether it is in size or sinfulness or anything else.

Well, That Certainly Explains Why He Didn’t Answer My Last Two Emails

Oh, man. Just got off the phone with one of my authors, who has been through a really awful month. An attack of kidney stones while traveling in the Third World, requiring an emergency flight to the United States. Barely a week after he was out of the hospital from that, a bad accident while bicycling that put him right back in. And family issues that are causing upheaval in his home life.

I’m still a little shaky from talking with him. I’m at Peet’s now, and I could use something stronger, but we’re not supposed to drink on our lunch hours so I’m sublimating my need for a brandy into an eggnog latte.

On the Other Hand, Being a Technical Editor, I May Not Necessarily Understand Them All

I was talking today to a fairly new coworker from another department, telling her a little about the book I’m almost done editing, and she asked me, “So do you read every word?”

Good lord. I’ve never gotten that one before and I didnt have an answer handy. But I resisted the temptation to say what came to my mind first: “Some of them twice.”

(That’s the classic booklover’s response when someone looks around and says, “Gee, have you read all these books?” But the truth is that I will have read every word in this book many more than two times by the time I’m done.)

Misspelling of the Day

From the New York Times breaking news alert in my email inbox a few minutes ago:

Sarah Palin, the governor of Alaska, announced she would step down before the end of the month, citing a desire to affect change outside of government.

Yeah, I guess it’ll be easier for her to pretend she’s changed if she’s not in government.

Grammar Schrammar

Received email at work the other day warning us that there’ve been a number of plural-singular mismatch errors slipping through lately, along the lines of (and I’m making this example up)

The inclusion of updated widget tables and expanded reticulation equations make this new edition especially valuable.

I found myself grinding my teeth a bit, partly because my ego doesn’t like people thinking I’m capable of such an elementary editing error (even though I know perfectly well that we all are when we’re working at a fast clip), but mostly because the mismatch of the singular subject “inclusion” and the verb “make” seems to me to be least of this sentence’s problems. Good grammar doesn’t redeem weak writing.

Two rules of thumb:

If you have to actually stop reading a sentence in order to work out whether the verb should be “make” or “makes”, then your sentence structure is just too damn complicated.

If your subject is an abstract noun like “inclusion”, then there’s a pretty good chance you’ve got the wrong word as your subject.

The real fix:

This new edition is especially valuable because it includes updated widget tables and expanded reticulation equations.