Linguistic Disputes Can Pack a Punch

By Rob Kyff

November 14, 2018 3 min read

Heated controversies over proper usage can lead to food fights at faculty clubs and fisticuffs on commuter trains. Featured on today's boxing card are three bouts:

— Ensure vs. Insure

Punctilious purists insist that "insure" be reserved only for financial contexts (as in insuring homes or autos) and that "ensure" should be used in non-financial situations, e.g., "Let's ensure that there are no mistakes."

But rip-roaring rebels claim that "insure" can also be applied to guaranteeing an outcome in any realm, e.g., "Let's insure that all children receive proper nutrition."

Who's right? Clearly, more and more people are using "insure" to mean "make sure," but this can lead to confusing sentences that briefly misdirect the reader, e.g., "Let's insure your home is safe." I'd stick with "ensure" for all nonfinancial contexts.

— Fulsome (meaning "offensively excessive") vs. Fulsome (meaning "abundant")

When the adjective "fulsome" first appeared in English during the 1200s, it meant "abundant, full," but during the 1600s, it acquired the negative denotation of "excessively flattering, insincere, overdone," especially when applied to speech or writing, e.g., "The tributes offered by his cronies were embarrassingly fulsome."

This meaning prevailed until the 20th century, when people began returning to the original, positive definition, as in "Helen thanked her colleagues for their fulsome praise."

What to do? Because traditionalists insist that "fulsome" should be reserved only for negative characterizations, using "fulsome" to mean simply "abundant" runs the risk of being misunderstood.

— Enormity vs. Enormousness

When "enormity" first appeared during the 1400s, it denoted only one thing: "monstrous evil," e.g., "Journalists have exposed the enormity of the dictator's crimes against humanity." Yet over the past few centuries, more and more speakers and writers have been using "enormity" to mean simply "enormousness," e.g., "Early explorers were astonished by the enormity of the North American continent."

Oddly, the cumbersome "enormousness" also once meant "excessive wickedness," but its dominant meaning soon became "vastness," with no connotation of evil.

By contrast, "enormity" has retained its original, negative definition, so using it to describe something that's simply huge can cause confusion. Instead, try "immensity," "magnitude" or "vastness." And you can always opt for the knockout punch: "humongousness."

Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Connecticut, invites your language sightings. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via e-mail to [email protected] or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.

Photo credit: at Pixabay

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