“The enormity of the disaster became ever clearer in neighboring St. Bernard Parish, hit by a levee break that let loose a wall of water up to 20 feet high.”
In his Dictionary of Modern American Usage, Bryan A. Garner discusses what he calls skunked terms. Enormity is one of these. Fulsome, decimate, hopefully and effete are others.
A skunked term, he explains, is a word that undergoes a marked change from one use to another, and thus becomes a subject of dispute. “Some people (Group 1) insist on the traditional use; others (Group 2) embrace the new use,” even if the new use originated purely as the result of ignorance or carelessness. “A word is most hotly disputed in the middle part of this process: any use of it is likely to distract some readers. The new use seems illiterate to Group 1; the old use seems odd to Group 2.” The word has acquired an odor, in other words. It has become “skunked.”
In the case of enormity, the conservatives of Group 1 say that it can only mean “outrageousness; atrociousness.” The linguistic progressives of Group 2 say that it can also mean — and now more often does mean — “greatness of size or scope; immensity.”
Garner himself is in Group 1. “Enormousness=hugeness, vastness,” he writes. “Enormity=outrageousness, ghastliness, hideousness. The historical differentiation between these words should not be muddled.”
The usage manual Success With Words is in Group 2: “Conservatives hold that enormity means only ‘extreme badness,’ never ‘enormous size.’ We feel that this rule is obsolete and that it is acceptable to use the word in either sense, or in both at once.”
As the legislators say, I have friends in both groups.
A sports columnist’s tale of meeting a “soup chef” in New Orleans caught Max Brantley’s eye. He asks, “Do you suppose he meant sous-chef?” Very likely. A sous-chef is “the second in command in a kitchen; the person ranking next after the head chef.”