November 9, 2008

Obama "revealed that, despite having edited the Harvard Law Review, he doesn’t know what 'enormity' means."

Crabs Peter Hitchens. I picked the same nit as I live-blogged on election night. Scroll to "yikes." And I note that he misused the word again in his first press conference. Perhaps when he's done apologizing to Nancy Reagan and persons of mixed race, he can acknowledge us language sticklers.

57 comments:

Host with the Most said...

Also in his first press conference, which I heard on the radio, he said "a international" instead of "an".

I noticed these things constantly during the campaign, especially during the debates.

Why didn't you?

Bet we won't see any websites devoted to his language inefficiencies now , will we?

And by the way, what's with not calling on Fox News at the Press Conference?

Ron said...

Doesn't the word conjoin "irony" and "size of our mistake"? I'm jus' sayin'...

chickenlittle said...

Hitchens writes:

And if those who voted for Obama were all proving their anti-racist nobility, that presumably means that those many millions who didn’t vote for him were proving themselves to be hopeless bigots. This is obviously untrue.

Truth sometimes conflicts with myth making.

ricpic said...

Obama minus lectern equals primitive.

SteveR said...

At least we didn't misunderestimate him.

UWS guy said...

primative=primate=monkey=black=racist!

Which reminds me of a recent Daily Show. John Stewart was leading into a commercial thusly:

"We'll be white back, Ah...We'll be right BLACK!...AHHH...I smoke crack...NOO...I hate black people!"

rhhardin said...

Enormity is okay by way of being a de-adjectival noun via -ity.

Like elastic, rapid, sane, false, diverse, banal, verbose, respectable, actual and regular.

Indeed one looks (in vain!) for eterne, leve and humile owing to just this rule.

The only slight violation is that -ness is preferred to indicate it's ad hoc and not in the dictionary, and -ity to indicate that it might mean something you can't guess exactly from the adjective.

Hence musicalness vs. musicality.

See A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Lanugage I.36, a must-have book for language people.

TMink said...

Our President elect is a bright man, everyone makes slips. Goodness knows I can spell things most creatively!

And I absolutely love the neologism misunderestimate!

Trey

MrBuddwing said...

OK, so the preferred definition of "enormity" is "atrociousness," and President-elect Obama obviously meant to say "enormousness." The thing is, the dictionary will accept "enormity" as a synonym for "enormousness."

How many other English words have been twisted out of shape through popular usage? For most of my life, I've used the word "bemused" in the belief it meant "slightly or mildly amused" when in fact it means "befuddled." And how many people have used the word "fulsome" to mean "abundant" when it really means "loathsome"? Or said
"tortuous" to describe something that's been tortured?

Original George said...

We understand "the enormity of the task that lies ahead."

Enormity: 1. The quality of passing all moral bounds; excessive wickedness or outrageousness. 2. A monstrous offense or evil; an outrage.

---

"The politics of consensus that Obama favors is incompatible with the Founders’ adversarial system, which permits those whom he disparages as “ideological minorities” to take stands on principle that, at times, frustrate the national consensus. Obama makes it clear that there is no place, in the politics he advocates, for those “absolutists” who would defy the community. The “ideological core of today’s GOP,” he writes, is “absolutism, not conservatism,” an absolutism driven by those who prize “absolute truth” over “communal values.” This commitment to absolute truth, he argues, stands in the way of a politics that can solve our problems and change our lives.

Obama goes so far as to argue that the Constitution itself is “a rejection of absolute truth.” His moral relativism is intimately bound up with his conviction that we can transcend those limitations in human nature that the Founders acknowledged when they drafted the Constitution. This rejection of older moral standards, Machiavelli observed, is a tactical necessity for the charismatic redeemer. It is not simply that adherence to the West’s traditional morality would prevent such a leader from being properly ruthless in the pursuit of his ideal; it is that the old morality, with its emphasis on the limits of man’s fallen condition, makes his communitarian paradise seem quixotic—an instance of utopian overreaching.

Machiavelli was ready with a solution. He helped prepare the way for the politics of redemptive healing by working to overturn the older morality. In particular, he undermined the West’s most potent myth of diabolic amorality and delusory hubris. Two years after he completed The Prince, Machiavelli composed a fable, Belfagor, or the Devil Who Took a Wife, in which he ridiculed the idea that the devil can take possession of a man’s mind and corrupt those around him. In assuming (correctly) that the diabolic qualities of his redemptive prince would be easier to swallow once the devil himself became a joke, Machiavelli blazed a path that Voltaire, Diderot, Goethe, and Shaw afterward trod. No one fears the devil that Voltaire refused to renounce on his deathbed. (“This is no time to be making enemies,” he jested.) Goethe’s Mephistopheles is charming, as is Shaw’s (in Man and Superman). Even those characters whom modern European artists have intended to be diabolic (such as Balzac’s Collin) arouse sympathy in a way that older devil-characters (Shakespeare’s Iago, for example) do not.

Dostoyevsky was among the few who grasped the momentousness of the change that Machiavelli initiated in the West’s conception of diablerie. Near the end of The Brothers Karamazov, he describes an encounter between the devil and Ivan Karamazov. The devil appears, not with claws and horns, but in the guise of an elegant man of the world..."

knox said...

"Enormity" is like "nonplussed" ... I've never heard anyone use either one correctly. I think the meanings should be changed accordingly.

Michael said...

YEAH!!!

Why can't we stick with someone like G.W.

A true wordsmith.

*I hope the crew here can come up with something better than this over the next 8 years.

Good lord...

Lem said...

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monomyth

Remember the stories of how letdown people would feel if McCain won?

It seems that the letdown, while postponed, will only be made all the more enormous.

Synova said...

And we use "terrible" to mean very bad.

So?

We use "awesome" to mean very good.

Synova said...

Fabulous.

Fantastic.

Michelle Dulak Thomson said...

There seems to be an epidemic of "enormity." Judith Warner's last NYT op-ed has this teaser:

The author wonders if her children will understand the enormity of Barack Obama’s achievement.

And a couple days ago I heard it from a local TV announcer, again about the "enormity" of Obama's victory.

I can only think the people using the word this way have never encountered the established meaning at all.

Lem said...

And a couple days ago I heard it from a local TV announcer, again about the "enormity" of Obama's victory.

By the time it comes around, we might not be able to recognize presidents day.

It's going to be Obama day... I don't know, I picture a ceremony on a baseball mound with a check and a new car ;)

Synova said...

I can only think the people using the word this way have never encountered the established meaning at all.

And who's fault is that?

If people who like it one way never use the word, then it's up for grabs, I say.

Michelle Dulak Thomson said...

Synova,

And who's fault is that?

Oh, jeez. No comment.

If people who like it one way never use the word, then it's up for grabs, I say.

Well, Synova, we do actually use the word, it's just that, even today, there are fewer examples of extreme wickedness than there are very large things, so naturally we use it less often than do people who mean "very large thing."

The Washington Post used it a few months ago in an op-ed about child rape titled "Punishing an Enormity." What would you -- or Obama, for that matter -- have thought that meant? That there were lots and lots of child rapists? That they were all overweight? What?

Crimso said...

"How many other English words have been twisted out of shape through popular usage?"

Like the way "gender" has replaced "sex." Sort of a pet peeve.

PJ said...

My apple widget dictionary says that "enormity" can have neutral usage to mean "enormousness" so I don't see the problem. We all know it's commonly used that way.

Michelle Dulak Thomson said...

PJ,

My apple widget dictionary says that "enormity" can have neutral usage to mean "enormousness" so I don't see the problem. We all know it's commonly used that way.

The problem is that it's silly to use a word with a primary strongly negative meaning and a secondary "neutral" one in the neutral sense if you can avoid it. You might, after all, be misunderstood.

If I remark on your flubjup house, and the unambiguous meaning of flubjup fifty years ago was "hideous," but a sense of merely "large" is now overtaking it in popular usage and even in dictionaries, can you be sure what I'm saying about your house? Would it be polite to ask which I meant?

And if the "neutral" meaning of "enormity" is so close a word as "enormousness," I can't help wondering what exactly is supposed to be wrong with "enormousness" itself. The number of syllables is the same, and if that's too many, we have "vastness," "great size," &c. to fall back on.

Whereas "enormity" in the old sense doesn't really have a one-word synonym. "Atrocity" might do for an event, "iniquity" or "heinousness" for the abstraction, but neither for both.

Meade said...

Once, out of enormous envy, I begged and tried to guilt Althouse into modifying my name with an adjective meaning "good."

Being that she has a little complex and conflicted thing for me - well, duh - she came back and referred to me as Marvelous Meade. Or was it Magnificent Meade? Uncanny, but I just can't quite seem to remember now. The enormousness of the experience apparently still has me a bit confounded - nonplussed, you might even say.

Anyhow, I didn't complain or ask for an apology like, " oh gee, poor me I've been linguistically victimized and now Althouse owes me reparation for her damaging cruelty. In fact... I sort of liked it.

Really rather miraculous, don't you think?

Synova said...

Sorry Michelle, but most of the people who read that probably filled in words to make sense and never once figured that "enormity" meant anything but "a really whole lot" of the badness.

I listed several words that have changed meaning. "Fantastic" no longer means that something is hard or impossible to believe. Fabulous, likewise. "Terrible" is a word used in the KJV to describe God, and not in a bad way.

The usage of words changes over time... unless you live in Iceland. English is tremendously fluid. I consider this a feature, not a bug.

Enormity seems to have the same root as enormous and I don't know that enormous implies severe evil, even if it used to do so.

poperatzo said...

You mean Nancy Reagan did NOT hold a seance in the White House?

And if she did, why would what he said require an apology? Or was he apologizing for Nancy Reagan instead of to her?

rhhardin said...

enormis 1. Having no regular or definite shape, irregular or shapless; (of clothes) ill-fitting; (of verse) metrically irregular. b (of literary style or sim.) extravagant, disproportionate. 2. Abnormally or excessively large, immense, huge, enormous.

Oxford Latin Dictionary.

Michelle Dulak Thomson said...

Synova,

Sorry Michelle, but most of the people who read that probably filled in words to make sense and never once figured that "enormity" meant anything but "a really whole lot" of the badness.

So that "Punishing an Enormousness" would have done just as well? Hey, why not? Context is all. And that's a most remarkably flubjup shirt you're wearing there.

Of course language changes over time. And of course "enormity" and "enormousness" have the same roots. The point is that they came to mean something usefully different, and now one of them is being collapsed into the other -- a word that already has lots and lots of common synonyms.

T Mack said...

But I thought BO is so smart. I mean did you see his grades from Harvard and Columbia, they were, a, were....well you know. It is not like he got into either university on the basis of his skin color alone, man.

Althouse, when one of your students cheats an he says it is okay because Obama cheated and you voted for him, what are you going to say?
Here you go, "It is not breaking the law if you don't get caught."
You go girl, you go.

Meade said...

"...extravagant, disproportionate. 2. Abnormally or excessively large, immense, huge, enormous."

So under SYNONYMS one finds: Bissage?

PatCA said...

Original George,
Wonderful article at your link. Thanks.

phx said...

Sheez...some of you guys act like the English language never changes. My 1991 Webster's Ninth Collegiat Dictionary indicates Obama's use of the word is fine. "Enormity's third sense ['the quality or state of being huge: IMMENSITY'] has continued in use from the end of the eighteenth century; it has been stigmatized as incorrect, for unknown reasons, since the end of the nineteenth."
But is that really why you linked us to these bleatings, Althouse?

Ann Althouse said...

Feel free to call people "monsters." It means one of a kind.

Meade said...

patca said...
"Original George,
Wonderful article at your link. Thanks."

Yes. I found this paragraph especially insightful:

It is significant that belief in the devil is lowest in those countries (Russia and Germany) that suffered, during the twentieth century, most acutely from forms of evil that might without exaggeration be called diabolic. Europeans, it may be, have proved more susceptible to the element of diabolic temptation in charismatic leadership precisely because they are less likely to believe in the reality of diabolic evil.

Richard Dolan said...

The usage of "hopefully" has had a similarly rocky journey to its present meaning.

Eisenhower was a font of missused words, and no one held it against him. And W came to see the charm in his mudwrestling with the language, to the point where he could use it to great effect. That is, until people stopped listening to him.

O will be a better president if he can see his own weaknesses and how to use them to advantage. Hopefully, he will surround himself with a team that will point them out. Unless they do, I'm not sure he'll find them on his own.

Ralph said...

"Candor" is another word that has thoroughly changed its meaning. Gender for sex is irritating, but "very unique" is the worst.

"Crabs" nails P Hitchens.

Meade said...

"Hopefully, he will surround himself with a team that will point them out."

Either that or he can just change the language by Executive Order. He is the fucking President of the United States now after all!

"Hopefully" is out. From now on it's "hobamafully." And "change?" "Barackofication."

Michelle Dulak Thomson said...

phx,

OK, I'll say it again: Of course language changes.

I think there are two issues here. One is that the words that get, um, repurposed these days tend to be useful words with established meanings of their own, which become less clear when people use the words to mean things that have lots of synonyms already. What makes "enormity" so much more attractive as a way of conveying the idea of enormousness than, well, "enormousness"? For what "enormity" used to mean, as I said, there's no good one-word synonym.

And the other is that, while language changes (again!), there's obviously a point early in the usage-shift of any given word where the new usage is, um, a mistake. I'll accept that "enormity" has been used to mean "enormousness" for two hundred years plus, but the "great wickedness" sense has been the primary one for a long time, the "enormousness" one the outlier.

I've seen "imminent domain" where "eminent domain" was meant six or seven times in the last month. Is it correct yet? If not, why not? It's not as though it's difficult for the reader to understand what was meant. It's clearly just another flubjup addition to our teeming language ;-)

phx said...

@Michelle D. T.:
Again from Webster's Ninth Collegiate,
"Enormity, some people insist, is improperly used to denote large size and is proplerly used only to denote wickedness, outrage, or creim. They recommend enormousness for large size. Enormousness, however, is simply not a popular word. It developed later than enormity..."
Your point about an initial period where new usage of a word is incorrect is well-taken. However, since it would appear that the use of "enormity" to denote huge or immensity HAS been around for over 200 years, it should be acceptable to anyone other than Victorians.
Still, I understand there are those who insist that their usage of the serial comma is the only correct usage, that sentences must never, ever begin with "And" or "But"...and hey, I LOVE these people! My point really is if you're going after Obama and you think you really have something to say about his enormities, isn't this just a little ridiculous?

Michelle Dulak Thomson said...

phx,

[S]ince it would appear that the use of "enormity" to denote huge or immensity HAS been around for over 200 years, it should be acceptable to anyone other than Victorians.

Dude (dudette?), when exactly do you think Queen Victoria reigned? Shouldn't you substitute, oh, Queen Anne or something?

My point really is if you're going after Obama and you think you really have something to say about his enormities, isn't this just a little ridiculous?

Who's "going after Obama"? Not I. I'm just bummed that now the usage has the Obama Seal of Approval.

Original George said...

Obama cleaves us.

phx said...

Michelle: I said Victorian as my earlier post noted that the use of enormity in this sense has only been stigmatized since the end of the 19th c. Don't make me have to come over there.
And I didn't necessarily think YOU (or Althouse for that matter) were going after Obama, it's the guy who's rant was the occasion of this post that I was thinking of. Best wishes.

phx said...

If anyone makes fun of my use of "who's" I'll be very, very disappointed.

rossi said...

Loving the appearance of the Althouse Palin Defense Team picking out words as if their emperor had any clothes there too also.

Stephen said...

The significance of Obama's misuse of "enormity" is an indication that we have been misled about one of his supposed strengths. (It's as if McCain referred to an Abrams missile.) Obama's a good writer, we think; look at the composition, the narrative structure, the keen observations in "Dreams from my Father".

Then we extrapolate: Obama's writing shows that he has an agile, inquisitive mind. He loves words, plays around with their sounds and combinations. And so we build the Obamedifice. But....he doesn't even know the definition of "enormity." What else about him could we be wrong about?

Stephanie said...

For those who don't see the inherent problem with this, ponder for a moment treaties or laws. Words mean what they mean.

Yet today we have the president of Poland upset; because, Obama called him and during that call assured him that we were going to honor our missile agreement. Only Obama didn't. The "spokesperson" for him says he didn't "necessarily" mean we would honor the agreement. He evidently used vague language that allowed room for waffling.

Politicians do that all the time, right? Yes. Heads of states don't. Even those holding the office of POTUSE (snort) should know that you can not and should not play games with allies. Or adversaries - wars start that way.

If you remember back to Desert Storm I, the idiot ambassador to Iraq gave Saddam some placating blather that he mistook for tacit approval to invade Kuwait. She was the proximate cause of that war and all due to words.

Again, words mean things, and the better and faster Obama learns that his predilection to appear as a mirror to all who behold him is not advantageous when the buck stops with him. It is also downright dangerous.

It's too bad that his primary job the last 8 years has been hopscotching from campaign to campaign and not pausing to learn the ropes of legislating. He has adapted the habits of the former and never learned the consequences of the latter.

JAL said...

Thanks Original George and Stephanie.

The comments here sometimes are remarkable in insight, thoughtfulness and clarity.

Synova said...

I disagree that using a common meaning of the word 'enormity' is the same thing as using weasel-words.

Weasel-words aren't used by accident.

If Obama got on the phone to the president of Poland and left him with the impression that he had a promise of support, it is not because Obama accidentally used a word with more than one meaning. It's because he intended to leave the president of Poland with the impression that we were on his side.

I'm not disagreeing with Stephanie, because she's got a really good point here, and I don't know how a person could argue against it either. I don't think it's a matter of political opinion.

Yet today we have the president of Poland upset; because, Obama called him and during that call assured him that we were going to honor our missile agreement. Only Obama didn't. The "spokesperson" for him says he didn't "necessarily" mean we would honor the agreement. He evidently used vague language that allowed room for waffling.

Politicians do that all the time, right? Yes. Heads of states don't. Even those holding the office of POTUSE (snort) should know that you can not and should not play games with allies. Or adversaries - wars start that way.


Very well said.

And it's not like we weren't warned. Many of us were appalled way back when Obama first pledged to violate Pakistani sovereignty without any apparent thought that this might not be the wisest thing to publicly announce. The man doesn't expect to encounter consequences.

Do you suppose he'll call and apologize?

kishke said...

Don't you mean "he can acknowledge we language sticklers."

Ralph said...

No. "Us" is correct (except in this sentence).

peter hoh said...

What's that I hear?

Sounds like the lamentations of bitter English majors, clinging to their OEDs, unwilling to accept the enormity of the living language.

Craig Landon said...

I'm in love with Michelle Dulak Thomson (or her dictionary. It's confusing, but I'll take either (long "i"))

AllenS said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Skeptical said...

I am also saddened to see that Obama uses constructions of the form "the difference between he and I" and so forth. Eek.

LarsPorsena said...

Well, this was/is bound to happen when he isn't rehearsed and on the teleprompter.

Michelle Dulak Thomson said...

Craig Landon,

That's sweet of you. Though if we met, I suspect you'd prefer the dictionary. It's in better condition, for one thing ;-)

I wake up to NPR in the morning. So what's the first thing I hear today when the radio switches on? NPR's Cheryl Corley introducing a segment about Michelle Obama as the nation's first black First Lady:

"Think of the enormity of it all, when the Obamas change their address to the White House on Inauguration Day . . ."

We're doomed, I tells ya. DOOMED!

tone_junkie said...

Ann linked to the American Heritage dictionary as if that proves Obama used "enormity" incorrectly. I submit Merriam-Webster's take on it:

http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/enormity

Choke on it, Obama bashers.

(Ann not included since she convinced me in her recent diavlog with Glenn Reynolds she actually is an Obama supporter. So more constructive criticism in her case. But the rest of you bitter little piranha in her comments section -- yeah, choke on it.)

knowitall said...

Obama making mistakes, oh no, someone call the liberal illuminati supporters, they'll never believe their saint has made a mistake!