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Strictly Speaking

Word Origins: When things aren't what they're called.


The most common use of this word refers to an armored assault vehicle driven by tracks and topped by a rotating gun turret. Almost no one remembers that the application of the word was the British code applied to a machine that appeared capable of delivering potable, nonpoisoned water to the trenches in World War I. But its intent was never that. It was designed and operated as a war machine to break the deadlock and futility of deadlocked front lines, an indestructible, terrifying vehicle with murderous firepower, and also a shield for advancing infantry.

Certain vestiges of the original meaning of tank as a reservoir of water remain. During the 1950s, nylon racing suits used by swimmers were called tank suits. Eventually, the reference of tank to a form containing water became so rare that elevated municipal water tanks became referred to as water towers, although the contained water is in a tank at the top.

Some believe that getting tanked is being so drunk that it seems a tank has run over them. More likely, if any relationship to tanks exist, it's probably because with car's we "fill up the tank." With beer. Which is served in tankards. Least desirable is a tank driver who's tanked.

Few today even question why it is that we refer to mechanized war machine as a tank. This may be taken, and fairly, as an index of indifference, to a lack in curiosity in the past. Perhaps if the code name for the war machine under development had been eggplant, people would be more puzzled as to how we reached the Abrams M-1 Eggplant. Or perhaps no one would have found this absurd incongruity hard to swallow. Read More 
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What Enormity Actually Means


Upon reaching this word, many readers will begin to suspect that the author is running short of misused or misunderstood words, and is now about to annoy or bore me with one that everyone knows.

Or do they?

Certainly as regards the word enormous, there is little common confusion, but some. An object may be enormous if its perceptible dimensions exceed those commonly associated for an object in its class. The adjective may be meaningfully applied to objects according to either size (length, breadth or volume) or mass, or both. While uttered with breathlessness, sometimes fear, the world enormous is more reliably created by the adrenal system of the observer than by any practical value of the object exhibiting enormousness.

That’s right, the property of something being enormous is enormousness. Not enormity. By a strange quirk of semantic refraction, enormity is bent to another significance. Writers and speakers as recently in history as the 1940s scored political capital for the exact mastery and employment of the word enormity. But more — not enormously more but adequately more – on that later.

Returning as if by warped space around a black hole to orbit the word enormous, it is fascinating – as Mr. Spock many times said – to note that the use of the word enormous in common usage sees it being applied to things like large sails on relatively small boats (“an enormous spinnaker”), even when the relative weight of the enormously sized object is slight, as it is in boat sails or circus tents. The canopies of circus tents (aka Big Tops) must enclose large crowds of eager rubes, but also be easily broken down into pieces by roustabouts in order for the show to go on. At least as far as the next town.

Objects of daunting size and mass often conjure shock and awe, as with the Wehrmacht’s late-war Goliath tank, a seemingly invincible city-crushing war machine that – despite the fine German engineering – repeatedly broke down and, worse for an army with no producing oil fields between the Siegfried line and the Sudetenland, got less than five millimeters per liter of Romanian-refined gasoline. But how strange it is to call this man-made object enormous and deny the term to black holes, which are not only larger than Goliath tanks but literally billions and billions times as massive.

The trick in application seems to be that the word enormous is denied to any object, however massive, that does not live up to its name by ruling space in a way that creates shock and awe. Galaxies, those scintillating and sprawling and twinkling and spinning gravitational masters of their local space, may be designated enormous. But their central black holes, the objects which along with dark matter – also never called enormous, despite its predominance over visible matter — are often (along a generous halo of dark matter) what have allowed the entire carousels of stars to form in the first place.

Black holes carry a big enough shtick, already, but they like some dying world of TS Eliot’s imagination, speak too softly to our star-eager eyes. During a close encounter of the last kind, they will end you, suck you down into a place where not even the laws of physics as we know them can save you. They can warp space and spark gamma ray bursts and devour careless close-by supergiant stars, as hungry as cosmological Jabbas the Hut, then burping off Hawking radiation, a kind of arrogant “Make my aeon!” dare. Objects placed behind dark holes bend light our ways, arriving like reflections from a fun house mirror. Their original, undistorted natures are taken prisoner by the great cosmic tyrant gravity, it, too, denied the distinction of enormousness, perhaps because we do not live on the planet Jupiter.

On Earth taxes are more crushing than gravity. To date, no one has applied the word enormous as regards taxes. Maybe on the next Rovian pass at voting booths, but so far, no.

First what enormity isn’t. It is not a synonym for enormousness. Enormity is monstrous evil, a departure from restraint and humanity and decency so grotesque that it requires the use of a word, often misunderstood, than can replace an expletive, a sound dignified and thoughtful, and with a finesse too rarely now exhibited in the baboonery of American politics. To the finely tuned ear, enormity can still – on the tongue of a polished speak who does not blink or go cross-eyed, or pound shoes on lecterns, or speak so badly as to have shoes hurled at him – emerge with a force and impact and gravity and articulateness that makes him memorably historic.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt made a speech often replayed where the intonation of his voice and the fire in his eyes added other dimensions of eloquence to his indictment of “the enormity of the Nazi empire,” with unspoken reference to: (1) primarily to the evil incorporated into laws that allowed Hitler’s thugs to drag away to death camps unpatriotic enemies of the Reich not killed on the spot; (2) to his systematic starvation and exploitation of captured citizens of conquered countries, to systematic euthanasia and medical experimentation programs; (3) to the complete and wholesale destruction of any measure of goodness, kindness and human decency, a wholesale embrace of a nationalized expression of Social Darwinism crystallized around a raving maniac who made Jim Jones’s Jonestown look like utopia by comparison.

FDR cleverly and simultaneously enlisted the commonly misunderstood word “enormity” to conjure and induce a mass fear that if Hitler were not stopped, he would soon hurl V-3s and V-4s and stealth bombers that could attack and destroy Fortress America. Golly, nobody back then wanted to be swallowed up in that kind of Nazi enormity, by God, Country and the underlying practice of democracy, which is decision by everyone, so that a sense was created that he was taking a plea to the people to help him make the right decision.

FDR never said that he would be the decider. That would have been an enormity against magnificent potential of language. But then, he didn’t keep reading children's’ books during a fireside chat after he learned that Pearl Harbor had been attacked. The enormity of that infamous moment had transcended child’s play. Nor did FDR feel that he needed to demonstrate his ability to read in order to remove popular doubt. He wasn’t that kind of a president, or a speaker, or a man. Read More 
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