Words 1

A quotation in an earlier post included the word sympathy and in passing I noted how seldom we see it these days as it is supplanted by empathy, which has become what Fowler called a vogue word. In a recent review section of The Guardian I counted no less than seven instances of empathy or empathetic in its various articles, and I see that the dictionary-makers have been busily playing catch-up to re-define its differences from sympathy.

Anything wrong with empathy? Not really, though I think that many of the writers who use it do so without much thought, precisely because it’s the fashionable term. Has sympathy gone? No, it’s just lurking in the shadows and may re-assert itself one day. The problem with vogue words is that we get sick of them.

Another current one is decimate, which classical scholars will know means ‘to reduce by one-tenth’: not to one-tenth or to wipe out altogether, though that is how it tends to be used these days. “The whole area has been completely decimated” says a TV reporter describing the charred after-effects of a forest fire, and a sports commentator once said that Mo Farrah had “simply decimated the opposition”, meaning that he won the race easily. Decimate in this sense is attractive because the speaker can stress the first syllable and its concluding sibilant — DESS-imate — giving it a dramatic ring, which is not the case with destroy or any other synonym. And of course we know what the reporters mean even if they don’t know or respect their Latin.

Then again: Once upon a time an enormity was an outrage, usually of a criminal nature. A Victorian maiden happening upon the scene of some hideous murder might have exclaimed “Merciful heavens, what heinous fiend can have perpetrated such an enormity?” but these days the word is generally used to denote great size, as when an astronomer speaks of the enormity of a galaxy or of the universe itself, as Brian Cox has sometimes done.

It sounds right. Everyone knows what enormous means, and in speech the central o-sound of enormity (which actually has a somewhat different derivation) can be stretched out to evoke wide open spaces (the arms may also be stretched out to illustrate the concept visually), while the alternatives are much less appealing: vastness and immensity are altogether too hissy for the purpose, while bigness, hugeness and indeed enormousness are awkward and ugly formations, colossal and stupendous generate no manageable nouns, and many hold that massive should have at least something to do with mass.

Purists may disapprove, but I think we must surrender to the forces of common usage and accept that big-enormity has ousted bad-enormity, and that use of the latter should now be confined to works of historical fiction, time-travel and possibly steampunk. It can go too far, though. In a recent TV programme about the excavation of some hitherto unknown tombs in Egypt the archaeologist in charge spoke of “the enormity of the discovery”, by which she presumably meant its great importance. I think this is an enormity too far, a bad-enormity in fact.

And while we’re on the subject of vogue words here’s a list of some words and expressions that I guarantee will never be used by me in this blog:

  • awesome (unless it really does inspire awe)
  • from the get-go
  • elephant in the room
  • epicentre (unless it’s about an earthquake)
  • going forward
  • meme (unless it’s from Richard Dawkins)
  • perfect storm
  • proactive
  • quantum jump or leap (except in physics or SF)
  • scenario (unless it’s a film treatment and not a worst-case)
  • sea change
  • step change
  • trope (unless it’s a figure of speech)
  • viral

I’m still debating whether someone like me should ever say or write heads up. There’s nothing more ridiculous than an old guy trying to be hip, as we used to say.

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