January 1, 2009

Enormous error

Ryan Seacrest just committed a very common error. In attempting to describe the hugeness of Times Square's New Year celebration, he called it an "enormity."

As Inigo Montoya said to Vizzini, "I do not think it means what you think it means."

e·nor·mi·ty n
1. extreme evil or moral offensiveness
2. a very evil or morally offensive deed

Encarta® World English Dictionary © 1999 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved. Developed for Microsoft by Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.

Now some dictionaries, such as the notoriously descriptivist Merriam-Webster, allow for "enormity" when what is meant is "enormousness." But, as Garner notes in Modern American Usage, "The historical diferentiation between these two words should not be muddled."

And why not, you ask? If people know that Ryan Seacrest just means that the celebration is really big, isn't that good enough?

Perhaps. But the careless use of "enormity" can introduce an appearance of bias where none was meant. For example, Garner cites a 1994 newspaper story titled "Big win" that includes this sentence: "Chances are it doesn't come close to describing the enormity of the Republican victory Tuesday."

Is the writer just trying to say it was a really, really big win? Or is he a Democrat?

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