When politicians misuse words: Oh, the enormity!

It's the enormity of it all that confounds me.

According to Webster's, "enormity" is 1) an outrageous, improper, vicious or immoral act. 2) the quality or state of being immoderate, monstrous or outrageous. 3) the quality or state of being huge, i.e., "the inconceivable enormity of the universe."

It is the third definition — the quality of being huge, or perhaps even ginormous — which is most often intended by politicians.

This grates on some people in the same way that it grates on my editor when I use the nonword "irregardless." I know that it's illogical and doesn't mean what people think it means, but I use it anyway to bedevil him.

To assess the enormity of the damage to our culture, I called the University of Chicago's Department of Linguistics, which you should know is the oldest linguistics department in the country. I spoke with the department chairman, professor Chris Kennedy.

He said that once, "enormity" did mean "great wickedness," but these days, most people use it to mean "huge," and they keep insisting it means "huge," so now there's no stopping it.

The last thing I expected was defeatism from a distinguished linguist. So I implored him to do something.

Why can't you stop them?

"We're not soldiers," said professor Kennedy. "We're scientists. ... Language is a hugely complex system, and imperfectly learned by children through hearing adults. Given how our brains work, you can't stop it. It happens."

So now a perfectly fine word like "enormity," which when applied to politics correctly describes the ravenous and malevolent government leviathan, is now lost?

He wouldn't say, exactly.

"Given that the word has two connotations — the contemporary one and this one that's historically (used), Daley made this assertion as a way to explain his actions. The question is: what were his intentions?"

I can't really tell you Daley's intentions, or Dillard's either.

It would be easier to cut federal entitlement spending so we don't go broke and our children don't turn us into crackers just so they'll have something to eat in the bleak future predicted this week by the Congressional Budget Office, than to read the mind of your average politician.

Kennedy explained that words can develop positive or negative meanings over time. As "enormity" became less threatening, a word that rhymes with "witch" — once innocently used to describe a female dog — has been lost to common discourse.

So I mentioned how grandmothers often use the word "suck" to describe something in the negative, when years ago, grandmothers wouldn't even drink beer out of a bottle for fear of being considered crude.

"That's what we should be worrying about, not the language," Kennedy said. "People use the language as a sort of proxy for some of these other cultural issues ... things like whether one ought to be able to have a conversation without using words like 'suck.' There are good reasons to practice decorum in discourse."

And there are good reasons to use "enormity" as it was once intended, irregardless of what some people say.

jskass@tribune.com

Twitter @John_Kass

CHICAGO

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