Gibbon’s “ness” monster

My campaign against the “ness” monster — the use of “valorousness” instead of “valor,” “resoluteness” for “resolution” or “resolve,” “perfidiousness” for “perfidy,” and so on — has not attracted the universal support on which I had counted.

Eugene Volokh, a linguistic liberal and democrat, agrees on “perfidiousness” (which is no more than a mistaken back-formation), but balks at insisting on, for example, “credulity” rather than “credulousness.” Why, he reasons, should the Latinate “ity-” and “-itude” forms, which vary from word to word, be preferred to the regularity of the Germanic “-ness”? Eugene points to evidence that in some cases what I regard as the proper forms aren’t actually much older in usuage than what I regard as mistakes.

Well, I still like my side of the argument (in part because I find the duplicated sibilant of the “-ousness” formulations hard on the ear) but the ethics of controversy requires that I bring to your attention a strong bit of evidence on Eugene’s side.

In Chapter 2 of the Decline and Fall, Gibbon refers to the “ferociousness” of some of the barbarians whom Rome confronted. That still seems to me like a much inferior expression to “ferocity” — say them both aloud, and decide for yourself which sounds scarier — but if the test of a language is how it is written by those who write it best, I can’t really deny that Gibbon has more authority than Kleiman.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: