Jewish World Review Sept. 25, 2013/ 21 Tishrei, 5774
When politicians misuse words: Oh, the enormity!
By John Kass
JewishWorldReview.com | (MCT) It took a Chicago guy named Daley to assess honestly the "enormity" of American politics.
But I'm sure glad he did.
"Even though you're around it for a long time, you don't get a sense of the enormity of it until you get into it," Bill Daley said the other day, explaining why he dropped out of the race for governor of Illinois.
The very next day, possibly because honesty is so contagious, state Sen. Kirk Dillard, a Republican running for governor, told me he appreciates the "enormity" of the governor's job.
"I understand the enormity of the office," said Dillard, in a big voice. "I need to be governor to lead this state and make it work again."
They're not alone. President Barack Obama, thought by some to be one of the great orators of our age, also uses the word.
"I do not underestimate the enormity of the task that lies ahead," Obama said in his famous 2008 speech in Grant Park after he was elected president.
And in January of the next year, at the Lincoln Memorial, he was at it again. "Despite the enormity of the task that lies ahead," he said, "I stand here today as hopeful as ever that the United States of America will endure."
Enormity this, enormity that, enormity ahead, enormity behind. The enormity of politics is often difficult to comprehend.
But some readers just can't stand it when political figures be they Republican or Democrat use "enormity."
I could almost hear them ripping their hair out as they typed.
"If I hear one more politician use 'enormity' to describe large government, I'm just going to blow my head off," texted one guy.
"Shut up shut up shut up," wrote another taxpayer. "Enormity? Yeah right."
And then this came in over the email transom:
"The word 'enormity" has been used recently and frequently to describe the Illinois governor's job, the electoral process, Illinois state governance and the state of the state in general. I couldn't agree more.
"Enormity is defined as: 1. The quality of passing all moral bounds; excessive wickedness or outrageousness. 2. A monstrous offense or evil; an outrage … John Borling (Maj. Gen. USAF ret.), Rockford."
How can this be? Does "enormity" really mean something large, like government or "political challenges"?
Or does it perhaps mean something hideously sinful and wickedly outrageous, like a government that starves its own people and gorges on their liberty.
Perhaps enormity also could describe my jealousy at all those who get those subsidized Obamaphones and don't qualify while I'm stuck with a non-Obama Tribune phone, the one with the cracked screen that cuts big chunks out of my ear.
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, regardless of what some people say.
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John Kass is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. Comments by clicking here.
© 2012, Chicago Tribune. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.