December 27, 2003

Cullen Murphy draws the line

In the Atlantic, Cullen Murphy writes that "... surely there are a handful [of standards] on which we might all agree to hold the line—this far and no further, unto the end of days. To start this long-overdue public conversation, I'll propose ten." His #3 is

III. Notoriety does not denote "famousness," enormity does not denote "bigness," and religiosity does not denote "religiousness."

I agree with Murphy about the meaning of these words, personally, but the basis of his strictures in history and present usage is more tenuous than one might like for a standard that we are supposed to uphold "unto the end of days". Or to put it more bluntly, sez who?

Murphy's column is at best half serious, and much of his new decalogue could be charitably interpreted as playful recycling of mildly un-PC rectitudes -- for instance his #2 and #5 are:

II. "Women and children first" (except maybe Ann Coulter).

V. "Honey, you look great!" (still the only correct answer).

So maybe it's unfair to take him to task for bad judgment in picking linguistic examples. Still, I'm disappointed. I'd expect him to be able to find some obnoxious new usages to (playfully pretend to) hold the line against. Instead, he picks three cases where he's objecting to the retention of an earlier (often original) meaning of a word.

There's no general rule that the development of a more specific meaning must drive out an earlier, more general one. Sometimes it happens and sometimes -- probably more often -- it doesn't. The OED considers that the more general sense is obsolete in only one out of three of Murphy's examples.

Was Murphy too lazy to check, too insensitive to see the difference? This is hard for me to believe about someone who has written the comic strip Prince Valiant since the mid 1970's. Or is this aspect of his piece just a subtle tongue-in-cheek subversion of his own Language Maven schtick?

For those without easy access to the OED, here's a summary.

Notoriety. The OED's first sense for notorious is "Of facts: Well known; commonly or generally known; forming a matter of common knowledge." The cited examples make it clear that the well-known facts need not be negative ones:

1555 EDEN Dec. W. Ind. (Arb.) 198 His courage was such and his factes so notorious. 1586 SIDNEY Ps. XX. iii, Lett him [God] notorious make, That in good part he did thy offrings take. 1621 BP. R. MONTAGU Diatribæ 567 Why were not other Examples brought into practice, as notorious as that of Abraham paying Tithes? 1686 W. CLAGETT 17 Serm. (1699) App. 15 These testimonies were too notorious and publick to be gainsaid. 1705 STANHOPE Paraphr. II. 407 That Every one is within his own too notorious to need a Proof.

Negative connotations don't come in until sense 4: "Used attributively with designations of persons which imply evil or wickedness: Well known, noted (as being of this kind)." No indication is given that the older, neutral sense (from Latin notus "known", notorium "knowledge", etc.) is obsolete.

For notoriety, the OED's first sense is "the state or condition of being notorious; the fact of being famous or well known, esp. for some reprehensible action, quality, etc." Examples without a negative connotation include

1575 N. HARPSFIELD Treat. Divorce Henry VIII (1878) 37 The notoritie of the manifest and open justice of our cause. 1749 H. FIELDING Tom Jones III. VIII. i. 146 The Credit of the former [historians] is by common Notoriety supported for a long Time.

Enormity. The OED agrees that the use of enormity to mean "bigness" -- its sense 3, which it glosses as "[e]xcess in magnitude; hugeness, vastness" -- is obsolete, and its citations for that sense are all from the late 18th or early 19th century:

1792 Munchhausen's Trav. xxii. 93 A worm of proportionable enormity had bored a hole in the shell. 1802 HOWARD in Phil. Trans. XCII. 204 Notwithstanding the enormity of its bulk. 1830 Fraser's Mag. I. 752 Of the properties of the Peak of Teneriffe accounts are extant which describe its enormity.

But if enormity could mean "enormousness" in 1830, who's to say that we have to hold the line "until the end of time" against the return of that sense?

Religiosity. The OED's first meaning for religiosity is "1. Religiousness, religious feeling or sentiment", with citations from 1382 to 1887:

1382 WYCLIF Ecclus. i. 17 The drede of the Lord [is] religiosite of kunnyng. Ibid. 18 Religiosite shal kepen, and iustefien the herte. 1483 CAXTON Gold. Leg. 245/1 There is treble generacion spirituel of god, that is to saye, of natyuyte, religyosite, and of body mortalite. 1609 BIBLE (Douay) Ecclus. i. 17, 18. 1813 Edin. Rev. XXII. 222 Their disposition to religious feeling, which they call religiosity, is..a love of divine things for the love of their moral qualities. 1846 J. MARTINEAU Misc. (1852) 188 Our author argues from the religiosity of man to the reality of God. 1887 Z. A. RAGOZIN Chaldea iii. 149 Man has all that animals have, and two things which they have not -- speech and religiosity.

The OED gives no indication that this meaning should be withdrawn in favor of the more specific sense "1.b. Affected or excessive religiousness", for which its earliest citation is 1799. That's because the original, broader sense never died out -- it's easy to find a continuous pattern of uses of religosity in this sense, from 1382 to the present day.

Posted by Mark Liberman at December 27, 2003 02:41 PM