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Really big shew tonight.

Dear Word Detective: Can you comment on the proper usage of the word “enormity”? As I understand it, the word used to mean something like, “having the quality of an atrocity or an outrage.” Now, it seems to be used routinely — even by TV journalists and public figures — merely as a word denoting size (i.e., “immensity”). Who decides what usages of a word are “improper” and when older usages should be considered “archaic”? — James Rhodes.

Well, the short answer to that question is “You do.” Remember when you were a kid and grownups told you that various things were “not a popularity contest,” i.e., sometimes the crowd isn’t right? That was good advice. The English language, however, actually is a popularity contest. Every word we say and every rule of grammar or usage we follow exists because more English speakers used them than the alternatives at the time, which are now considered “archaic” or “obsolete.” More specifically, dictionary editors don’t declare a usage “standard” or “archaic” without doing serious research into how it’s actually used in everyday life by the majority of people.

The debate over the proper use of “enormity” has been going on for more than a century at this point, conducted largely in usage manuals, most of which declare that “enormity” should only be used to mean “monstrous evil” (e.g., “the enormity of the Holocaust”) and that using it to mean “great size” or “immensity” in either a literal or figurative sense is a grievous error. The proper choice if one means “immensity,” they say, is “enormousness.” The vehemence with which this rule is often proclaimed is surprising, inasmuch as it lacks any apparent basis in the history of the word.

Both “enormity” and “enormousness” developed from the Latin “enormis,” formed from the prefix “e” (out of, beyond) plus “norma,” rule or boundary (also the source of “normal,” etc.). “Enormity” is the older of the two words, appearing in the early 16th century, while “enormousness” didn’t show up until about 100 years later. Interestingly, both words originally meant the same thing: something that was greatly outside the bounds of normalcy, far exceeding what would be expected. Both words also originally carried strong connotations of wickedness (“Such is the infinitenesse, and enormousnesse of our rebellious sin,” J. Donne, circa 1631).

So both “enormity” and “enormousness” were used to mean “great wrong or monstrous evil” until the late 18th century, when they both also began to be used in the sense of “hugeness,” “vastness” or “immensity” without any connotation of immorality or evil (“A worm of proportionable enormity had bored a hole in the shell,” 1792). This usage could refer to either literal size (“Of the properties of the Peak of Teneriffe accounts are extant which describe its enormity,” 1830) or, figuratively, to something that is daunting or forbidding in difficulty (“… the enormity of the task of teachers in slum schools,” 1961).

Suddenly, in the late 19th century, pretty much out of thin air, usage arbiters began to declare the use of “enormity” to mean a morally-neutral “hugeness” or “vastness” incorrect, and to insist that “enormity” could only be used to mean “great evil.” If you wanted to speak of great size, either literal or metaphorical, you were to stick to “enormousness,” a word so awkward that almost everyone who heeded the new prohibition chose “immensity” and other alternatives.

If it were possible to legislate language, I’d actually vote to make “enormity” mean only “great evil.” I understand the urge to reserve one truly powerful word to describe nothing but monstrous crimes. But it isn’t possible. Although most usage guides of the “watch your language” school continue to insist on the “great evil” definition of “enormity” as the only acceptable use, it’s apparent that the prohibition against “enormity” meaning “immensity” is fading fast in popular usage. Even some notable language mavens, the late William Safire among them, threw in the towel on the question years ago. The practical problem, however, is that the world is full of people who still cling to the “rule” about “enormity,” many of whom occupy positions of power and may look askance at a reference to the “enormity” of your email inbox. So in venues where usage “traditionalists” may be lurking (job interviews, the comments section on the New York Times website, etc.), it’s probably best to stick to something a bit less controversial. I’d go with “ginormousness.”


Fly flea in a flue?

Dear Word Detective: In 1902, two Tin Pan Alley songwriters, Vincent Bryan and Harry Von Tilzer, wrote a song titled, “You Couldn’t Hardly Notice It At All.” The first two lines are, “A maid came in from Olean, she was a little shy, but you couldn’t hardly notice it at all. She met a gay young city chap, who tho’t that he was fly, but you couldn’t hardly notice it at all.” The maid goes on to snooker the gay young chap. In 1911 Nat D. Ayer and Paul West wrote “The Gum Shoe Man.” The first two lines are, “If you ever do wrong as you go along, there’ll be someone after you. He’s a man who’s fly with an eagle eye and he always spots a clue. He’s the Gum Shoe Man, and he always gets his man.” It seems as though, back in the early 1900’s, “being fly” was a term that meant something like being clever, astute, observant, not easily fooled. Do you know the origin and meaning of being “fly”? — Bob W.

Ah, those were the days, my friend. The days when a tune was a tune, only a bird was a loon, and gumshoe men kept the rabble in check. Or so I was told as a sprat, usually by the same cranky people who wouldn’t let me play with their plastic lawn flamingos. Where are they now? The flamingos, I mean. The cranks are still around, although their yards are now decorated with strange, angry signs. Incidentally, a “gumshoe man” back then was a detective, so-called because they were said to wear noiseless rubber-soled shoes, all the better to sneak up on miscreants.

Before we tackle “fly,” it’s worth noting that the lyrics you quote employ “gay” in the antiquated sense of “finely or showily dressed” common at that time, although the same word during that period also carried connotations of a frivolous or hedonistic nature. The word “gay,” from the Old French “gai” meaning “happy, carefree” (but also “frivolous” and “lewd”), has had dozens of meanings since it first appeared in English in the 14th century, so a complete history is beyond the scope of this particular column, but I’ll get around to it someday soon.

Your translation of “fly” in lyrics from the early 20th century as meaning “clever, astute, observant, not easily fooled” is right on the money. The adjective “fly” first appeared in slang with this sense of “sharp” or “in the know” in the early 19th century (“The rattling cove is fly; the coachman knows what we are about,” 1811); later in the century it also came to mean “dexterous, nimble” (“We’ll knap a fogle with fingers fly,” 1839). The “in the know” usage, which was originally largely confined to the criminal underworld, percolated out into general slang in the mid-19th century with the meaning of “smart, fashionable” and eventually “excellent, cool, attractive.” This sense took root in African-American slang in the mid-20th century, and was very common in rap and hip-hop culture starting in the 1980s or so.

Just where this use of “fly” as an adjective came from is a bit of a mystery. Most authorities regard it as most likely connected in some way to the verb “to fly” (from the Old English “fleogan,” from an Indo-European root meaning “to float or fly”), but no one has ever come up with a plausible explanation of the connection. (The noun “fly” originally meant simply “insect with wings,” and was applied to any insect that could fly, such as the butterfly.)

There are, of course, several theories about the origin of the adjective “fly.” Perhaps the simplest ties the “clever, in the know, not easily fooled” sense to the common fly, always vigilant and almost impossible to catch off-guard. The fact that this slang “fly” originated in the underworld, where scams and ruses were the rule and to let one’s guard down could be fatal, gives this theory some plausibility. Another theory, offered by the eminent slang etymologist Eric Partridge, suggests that this “fly” is actually a form of “fledge,” which we use to mean “mature” (as in “full-fledged”), but originally referred to a young bird that had grown enough feathers to fly. Since “fledge” is rooted in “fly” itself, we’re still in the ballpark with the verb “to fly” with that theory. Another theory suggests that “fly” was originally “fla,” a short form of “flash,” used in the 18th and 19th century as slang meaning “clever, in the know” (from “flash” meaning “intense light,” in this case a metaphor for intelligence).

September 2011 Issue

Semper Ubi Sub Ubi


So True Blood has wrapped up for the season by killing off a few dozen characters. Couple of nameless vampire zombies in the Moon Goddess Emporium, Nan Flanigan (too bad), Lafayette’s boyfriend Jesus (really too bad), that werewolf guy with the bad hair (Marcus), Marnie for the second time, Debbie van Pelt (the only remotely normal person on the show, even though she was a werewolf) and then, big finish, Tara with a shotgun blast to the head. Whoa. Is Tara really dead? I bet not. You know who is dead? That guy who showed up to visit Terry. Nobody else seems to have picked up on that. But Russell Edgington, the Vampire King of Mississippi, is apparently coming back next year, so things are looking up. Russell Edgington is awesome. Incidentally, the annoying witch-groupie hippie guy gorily offed by Eric the first time they killed Marnie is now appearing in a MasterCard commercial playing a suburban dad with a kid in a shopping cart. Weird casting choice, given the popularity of True Blood.

Incidentally, speaking of commercials, our son (Michael Mercurio) appeared in a Tide Stain Stick commercial a few years ago. (He’s the soldier standing immediately stage left of the guy the drill sergeant is yelling at.) They recently started running it again, for which he gets paid again, which is cool. This commercial shows up on a lot of “my favorite commercial” lists, so they may be running it off and on for years.

Onward. So Borders Bookstores has bought the farm. It’s always sad to see bookstores close, but I was never a big fan of their aesthetic, a sort of crypto-hip we’re-not-really-a huge-corporation Whole-Foods-of-Books shtick. Not a Whole Foods fan here, by the way. It reminds me too much of food coops.

I have hated food coops since circa 1969. C’mon, I just wanna buy some bananas and go read a book, OK? I don’t want to go to a meeting, especially not with a bunch of weedy, whiny control freaks.

Elsewhere in the book biz, Barnes & Noble seems to be on the verge of being sold, or something, although most of the people interested in buying it are apparently just trying to get their grubby paws on the Nook. There have even been rumors that Apple is going to buy B&N, kill the Nook, and convert the stores into Apple Stores, or maybe Apple Book Stores. I think Apple should buy Amazon too, and shoot that godawful Kindle. Then run the B&N stores off the Amazon back-end.

When we lived on the Upper West Side, we referred sardonically to the giant B&N at 82nd Street and Broadway as “The Great Satan.” (After all, they did drive Meg Ryan’s little bookshop out of business, right? BTW, the store You’ve Got Mail used as the set for her shop actually sold, as I recall, over-priced pastries and insanely over-priced antiques.)

But in real life, Shakespeare & Company, a block south on B’way, was driven out of business by that evil B&N (although they retained branches in the Village and on the East Side, which is a funny way to be driven out of business). And Endicott Books across Columbus Avenue from us croaked when B&N moved into the neighborhood, but that’s because Endicott hired snotty idiots (favorite actual clerk quote: “Dylan Thomas biography? Have you looked in the music section?”) and shared a name with a chain of cheesy shoe stores. I liked Coliseum Books off Columbus Circle, but my absolute fave was The Strand. Nice to see they’re still around.

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