A prodigious debate around a common term

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A recent Washington Post sports story used one word in two very different contexts. Discussing the selection of Aaron Judge and Cory Bellinger as baseball’s rookies of the year, The Post noted Judge’s “marketable mixture of prodigious power, extreme size (6-foot-7, 280 pounds) and humble personality,” and that “both Judge and Bellinger struck out at prodigious rates in 2017.” In another article, The Post said that “Trump himself has proved to be a prodigious fundraiser when he wants to do it.”

Over at The New York Times, one article said that Roy S. Moore, Republican candidate for the Alabama Senate, “saw his already prodigious history of controversy grow during the campaign.” A review of a Broadway play talk about one character’s “prodigious nosebleed,” and a television columnist discussed President Trump’s “prodigious Diet Coke intake.”

Based on those uses, can you define “prodigious”? You know it has something to do with being big, since the power, strikeout rate, fundraising ability, controversial history, nosebleed, and Diet Coke intake are all obviously oversized in those contexts.

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But “prodigious” doesn’t just mean big. It means really, really big. And its overuse to mean merely large is bordering on the “prodigious.”

The second definition of “prodigious” in Webster’s New World College Dictionary,the one used by many news organizations is “of great size, power, extent, etc.; enormous; huge.” The third definition in Merriam-Webster is “extraordinary in bulk, quantity, or degree.”

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Things that are “prodigious” are also “wonderful” and “amazing,” definitions in both WNW and M-W. Those definitions are actually older: The Oxford English Dictionary traces the “wonder” usage to about 1497, but the “enormous” usage to 1601. And yes, “prodigious” is related to “prodigy,” which we think of nowadays as a highly talented youngster.

But the original definition of “prodigious,” now obscure, was “portentous”: relating to an omen, probably a bad one. We are still using “portentous” in that way, though it’s occasionally incorrectly spelled and pronounced “portentious.” That may be responsible for its occasional use as a synonym for “pretentious.”

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One more “p” word that shows up occasionally (and maybe shouldn’t): “parlous.” When it first showed up around 1390, the OED says, it meant “keen, shrewd,” especially “dangerously cunning or clever.” But today it’s used as a synonym for “perilous.”

Merriam-Webster says that “parlous” and “perilous” both derive from “periculum,” Latin for “danger.” But by the 17th century ‘parlous’ had slipped from common use and was considered more or less archaic. It experienced a resurgence in popularity in the 20th century (although some critics still regarded it as an archaic affectation), and today it appears in fairly common use, often modifying ‘state’ or ‘times.’”

Indeed, this Google n-gram shows “parlous” spiking early in the 20th century, and leveling off toward the end.

The criticism of “parlous” as “an archaic affectation” is justified. WNW lists “parlous” as “literary,” meaning used for effect. The same could be said of “prodigious” and “portentous.” If you’re just trying to impress people, don’t create a “parlous” situation by using “prodigious” “portentously.”

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.