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Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Word Wise Wednesday

This post is the story of how I lost all faith in the public school system. Okay, that's a little overly dramatic. I haven't lost all faith in the public school system. Just most of it. And it wasn't all lost because of this episode either. But it is true that I have had this chip on my shoulder for the last 10 years.

Enormity. Do you know what it means? If you don't, you're in good company that includes ivy league educated presidents and English teachers alike. Aparantly no one knows what it means except a few devoted "wordies" around the web that like to make lists of the most commonly misused words in the English language and people like me who have had the meaning etched into my memory because of a bad experience in high school. So that makes 10 of us.

When I was writing papers in high school, much like I do today, I often scoured the thesaurus to see if I could find more sophisticated words to use beyond my everyday vocabulary which, these days, consists of mostly the phrase: "John, no!" (You can see how writing would quickly become limited with only those words at my disposal!)

So, I knew that when I used the word enormity in a paper in 10th grade that I was describing some monstrous evil. Yes, it means monstrous evil. I can see why people might think that it means enormous. The two words share some of the same letters. And, according to dictionary.com com, one of its meanings is enormous. So, I can see where people might be confused.

This is another raging debate in the word world. Some only acknowledge the definition "monstrous evil" (and those in that camp are quite vehement). Some acknowledge both meanings. Most neither know nor care. But if you're like my high school English teacher you think that it only means huge and you shame young high school students who may have a bigger vocabulary than you.

So, that's what happened I was shamed in front of the entire class for using a word correctly! It was a very quiet day in class where everyone was writing. The details are fuzzy now so many years later. But I found myself at her podium flabbergasted that she was so loudly critiquing my paper and word choices in front of my peers who, of course, were all listening intently! Could she not have used an inside voice?

But really, the critique is not what bothers me so much. What really gets my goat is that she thought that enormity means huge. Well, it might mean that, though, I contend, and I am not alone, that that is not its primary meaning. But some words in the English language have more than one meaning! And thank goodness for that! So, when I said that John had tears running down his face, you don't jump to the conclusion that he's been mauled by a bear and will require extensive reconstructive surgery! Because tears and tears (rips) are different! Even though they're the same! My point is, should she not have known that words can have more than one meaning?! And, I daresay, shouldn't she have known the definition of enormity, being an English teacher?! And, I'll acknowledge, no one can know what every word means, so maybe if she couldn't know the definition, shouldn't she have at least been less enthusiastic in her criticism when I was maintaining that I knew what it meant?! Do they just let anyone off the street teach high school English?

And that's why I'll never forget the definition of that word. It's a pity that there really aren't very many opportunities to use it in everyday conversation. I suppose I could say: "John, it's an enormity to disobey your mama!"

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