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When politicians misuse words: Oh, the enormity!

| Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

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, state Sen. Kirk Dillard, a Republican running for governor, told me he appreciates the “enormity” of the governor's job.

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 2008 speech in Grant Park after he was elected president.

But some readers just can't stand it when political figures use “enormity.” 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 mean something hideously sinful and wickedly outrageous, like a government that starves its own people and gorges on their liberty?

I called the University of Chicago's Department of Linguistics, the oldest linguistics department in the country, and spoke with department chairman Chris Kennedy.

He said that once “enormity” did mean “great wickedness,” but these days most people use it to mean “huge” and 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.

“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.”

So now a perfectly fine word like “enormity,” which when applied to politics correctly describes the ravenous and malevolent government leviathan, is 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.

Kennedy explained that words can develop positive or negative meanings over time. 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.

John Kass is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

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