Thursday, April 9, 2009

Paglia responds to my complaint about "enormity"

It's an honor to have my letter printed, even if Camille Paglia disagrees with my point on the proper usage of "enormity".  Apparently, many Salon readers are on my side.

You wrote: "Two weeks after my return, I am still trying to process the enormity of my experience in Salvador, which was staggering on every level."

I understand that usage is subject to change, but I feel a duty to my old English teacher, Fr. McFadden, SJ, to use "enormity" with the traditional sense of "great wickedness or evil." I hope that you will agree that the standard definition of "enormity" is worth preserving. The president has been misusing that word for a while, and I fear that without the help of respected writers, it may soon be lost.

Steve Miner

Well, I certainly got an earful from Salon readers about this one! I appreciate the grammar protests from everyone who wrote in. But I honestly have never accepted that sharp distinction in English. In French, one can use enormité in either sense, and it seems to me a very useful duality. I was certainly signaling that the carnival in Salvador had both a physical and a spiritual dimension; neither "immensity" nor "enormousness" (which other readers suggested) would have been quite right.

From the swaying top of Daniela Mercury's cruising trio elétrico, I was reminded of many things -- Wordsworth's sonnet about sleeping London at dawn as a "mighty heart" and Baudelaire's spooky poem about beauty as a goddess-like stone sphinx with bruising breasts. With apologies to irate English teachers everywhere, "enormity" with a French twist really nails it!

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