By Janadas Devan
'A good friend and I were discussing the recently published collection of essays on Mr Goh Chok Tong's legacy,' a letter writer in the Forum page said recently. 'A salient point we agreed on was the enormity of both the official and personal burden that awaited Mr Goh as he took over as prime minister.'
I protested. 'Enormity' does not mean 'enormousness' or 'hugeness', I insisted to the sub-editors. It means 'monstrous wickedness', 'a gross irregularity' as in 'the enormity of Hitler's crimes'. We should have corrected the letter writer. If 'enormousness' or 'hugeness' seemed awkward substitutes for 'enormity', we might have used 'vastness' or 'immensity' instead.
But Chief Sub-editor Paul Cheong was having none of this. Collins English Dictionary, he pointed out, expressly states that 'in modern English, it is common to talk about the 'enormity' of something such as a task or a problem', though it still remains unacceptable to 'talk about the 'enormity' of an object or area'. Thus it still is 'India's enormous size', not 'India's enormity'.
The New Oxford Dictionary Of English (NODE) too takes a liberal position on the word's usage. 'It is not uncommon for 'enormity' to be used as a synonym for 'hugeness' or 'immensity', as in 'the enormity of French hypermarkets',' it notes. Such use 'is now broadly accepted in standard English'.
New Oxford, it should be noted, is not related to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). Both are published by Oxford University Press, but NODE is not quarried from the OED. It is an entirely different enterprise, focusing 'on the current core meanings of words'.
Interestingly, the OED and its offshoots - the Shorter Oxford, the Concise, the Compact and so on - retain, more or less, the old distinction between 'enormity' and 'enormousness'. The latest edition of the Shorter Oxford, for instance, characterises the confusion of 'enormity' with 'enormous size' as erroneous.
What is one to do when the dictionaries disagree? Well, one might turn to the guides on usage, of course, beginning with that Bible of English usage, H.W. Fowler's A Dictionary Of Modern English Usage.
The original 1926 edition of the work was brisk and forthright on the matter: To refer to 'the impression of enormity produced by the building' is 'etymologically possible', the great man concedes, but it would lay one open to 'suspicion of ignorance'.
Since usage for Fowler was not just a matter of grammatical correctness, but more importantly, of social correctness, there could not have been a worse consequence of wrong usage than of being suspected of 'ignorance'. The fear of being thought not to belong - of being taken for a 1920s version of Miss Ris Low - ensured respectable people did not confuse 'enormity' with 'enormousness'.
The second edition of the Dictionary, edited by Sir Ernest Gowers, which first appeared in 1965, repeats Fowler's original entry almost word-for-word. Gowers/Fowler, obviously, still shared the same prescriptive assumptions as Fowler did 40 years earlier.
Then we come to the third edition, The New Fowler's, edited by Mr R.W. Burchfield, which first appeared in 1996. Gone are Fowler's brisk and forthright tones. Instead, Mr Burchfield is democratic and judicious.
'Nowadays, in the majority of contexts, 'enormousness' and 'enormity' continue to be distinguished in most standard writings,' he writes, paying appropriate tribute to tradition. ''Enormity' is usually restricted to contexts of crime, depravity, wickedness, etc, while large size is indicated by a range of synonymous nouns ('vast extent', 'hugeness', etc.).'
That seems definite enough. But alas, alarmed perhaps by his own audacity, Burchfield/Fowler goes on to offer the inevitable qualifications. Correct usage for him, unlike for Fowler, is not a matter of belonging, of social correctness; it is about how people actually use words in practice.
'But 'enormity' seemingly cannot be kept within bounds and is encroaching on the territory set aside for 'enormousness',' he writes. 'There are also numerous circumstances in which the notions of wickedness and of hugeness coincide, and it is in these that the difficulty arises.'
Among the exceptions, he lists: ''enormity' used to mean 'some degree of wickedness''; and of especial relevance to the Forum letter above, 'enormity' used to refer to 'the largeness of immaterial concepts'. For example: 'As they lay in one another's arms...the lovers were filled with a sense of the enormity of their love.'
Burchfield/Fowler finally concludes: 'It is recommended that for the present 'enormity' should not be used in plain contexts where the physical size of an object is the only feature involved: in other words, one should eschew the type 'the enormity of the pyramids'. It is more difficult to find fault with 'enormity' used of the size or immensity or overwhelmingness of abstract concepts, especially when any element of departure from a legal, moral or social norm is present or is implied.'
'What's the difference?' I scream at Burchfield/Fowler, but it is no use. I fear the distinction between 'enormity' and 'enormousness' will soon go the way of the once clear distinctions between 'momentary' and 'in a moment', 'disinterested' and 'uninterested', 'alternate' and 'alternative', and so on.
Try telling an airline pilot his plane can't possibly 'be landing momentarily', for 'momentary' means 'for a moment, briefly' - 'I wondered momentarily if he knew English' - not 'soon'. Try telling a teenager that Mother Teresa served the poor 'disinterestedly', while he is just 'uninterested' in his work.
What is the use of being careful about usage when it is changing so fast? In the long run, perhaps little, but in the meantime, such care does help foster a certain consciousness, a certain scrupulousness, a certain hesitation, even humility, in our choice of words. Apart from that, screaming at every erroneous 'enormity' is a waste of time.
The enormity of the changes in English usage allows us no more than a momentary purchase on the kind of confidence that came so effortlessly to Fowler.
This article was first published in The Straits Times.