Fighting words

Mona Charen

4/23/2004 12:00:00 AM - Mona Charen

 There is one huge problem with the 9-11 Commission. It's a bipartisan problem -- and it's a problem of such enormity that I must comment on it. A number of our leading citizens do not know the meaning of the word "enormity."
I give you Philip Zelikow, the staff director of the 9-11 Commission who reads an introductory set of findings at the start of each hearing. "The FBI received congressional approval in late 2000 for the Trilogy project, a 36-month plan for improving its networks, systems and software. Dies told us that given the enormity of the task at hand, his goal was merely to 'get the car out of the ditch.'" Here, too, is former Senator and Secretary of Defense William Cohen: "To do anything less than that, to put these young people at risk with the enormity of the task of that country, that size, with that many caves with, by the way, the support of the Taliban, and not the support of Pakistan, I'd have to question whether or not that was reasonable to do so."

 It isn't just the commission, of course. The word enormity is quickly slipping its moorings. Here is the definition offered by the American Heritage Dictionary: "1. The quality of passing all moral bounds; excessive wickedness, outrageousness. 2. A monstrous offense or evil; an outrage." The word does not mean hugeness, immensity or enormousness. So to say "the enormity of the task" is nearly always wrong, unless the task is to fly passenger airliners into skyscrapers.

 One hates to pick on the 9-11 Commission -- well, no, one doesn't. Here's a word whose misuse has engendered chuckles. The word is fulsome. People seem to think it means complete or comprehensive. Not quite. Here's American Heritage again: "1. Offensively excessive or insincere. 2. Offensive to the senses; loathsome; disgusting." Former Governor Tim Roemer introduced his comments to Attorney General John Ashcroft with a hearty "Welcome, General. Thank you for your time here and your fulsome testimony." Likewise, Fred Fielding, former counsel to President Reagan, welcomed former FBI director Louis Freeh with equal appreciation: "Good morning, Mr. Director. Thank you very much for being here today and for all the cooperation you've provided to the commission and its staff in closed sessions heretofore and for your really fulsome statement that you gave us." Secretary of State Colin Powell told an appropriations committee last week that "I'd like to provide a more fulsome answer from Ambassador Bremer and the Pentagon."

 In the midst of live testimony, it is a rare person who speaks in complete sentences, let alone paragraphs. Still, is there no floor to the fragments, pauses and incomprehensibility that some call public speaking? Here is Louis Freeh: "But I guess what I'm saying is there was, I mean, Janet Reno and myself, together on a very, very regular basis. Myself individually on numerous occasions directly with Sandy Berger, that's all we talked about was the Khobar case."

 There are a number of words that have tumbled out of otherwise well-educated mouths that do not, strictly speaking, exist. One is snuck. The past tense of sneak is sneaked. But here is reporter Seymour Hersh, on CNBC describing his reporting from the field: "In earlier attempts we went only from Afghanistan, and Al Qaeda and Bin Laden, perhaps others, just sort of snuck through the mountain passes back into Pakistan ... " Ron Harris of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported on National Public Radio that "the Iraqis don't wear uniforms, and they looked like anybody else. The Marines didn't find out until actually the battle had started, and they got a telephone tip that told them that these guys had snuck into town." Another nonexistent word is irregardless, but it has, ahem, snuck into lots of sentences.

 OK, I don't want to poach any longer on William Safire's territory (which reminds me of the time I served poached salmon at a brunch and a 15-year-old guest took her mother aside to ask if the meal had been stolen). But allow me to get just a couple more pet peeves off my chest. Disinterested means unbiased, not uninterested. Decimate means to reduce by one-tenth, not to annihilate. Fortuitous means accidental, not lucky. And literally means literally. People are constantly using expressions like "I was literally freezing." No, they weren't. If they were literally freezing, they'd be dead or close to it.

 I am literally finished with this diatribe. If it seemed fulsome, I hope you will continue to read this column irregardless.