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Verbal Energy

A little column about something big

An appreciation of a hardworking word that does a lot of heavy lifting.

By Ruth Walker / June 20, 2012



In English it's often the littlest words that work the hardest. And the most familiar ones often have particularly obscure derivations.

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Take big, for instance. Big has been in the news lately. Some 6 million Britons, jubilant over their queen's diamond jubilee, sat down June 3 to "The Big Lunch." This exercise in community-building was part of Prime Minister David Cameron's vision of his country as "the Big Society."

Then came the failed effort to oust Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who had riled many with his efforts to restrict collective bargaining. When he won a recall election June 5 by a spread of several points, this was described as "the death knell of Big Labor."

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And in the land of information technology, movers and shakers (and wannabes) were urged, "Come to New York and get yourself up to date with the Big Data revolution!" The 10th International Cloud Expo was held there June 11-14. For those who think of "clouds" as cirrus, nimbus, or cumulus, Wikipedia explains "big data" as a "loosely-defined term used to describe data sets so large and complex that they become awkward to work with…." Among the fields regularly deluged with monsoons of data are meteorology and anything involving surveillance cameras. How splendid to be able to package all this superfluity with a concise term like "big data." How efficient to be able to encapsulate trade unions, whose organizational names so often seem to ramble on forever, under the heading of "big labor."

As for "The Big Lunch": Who could argue that a party with 6 million guests isn't big? Mr. Cameron's "Big Society," however, can't help reminding Americans of President Lyndon Johnson's "Great Society" (a connection all the more interesting because Cameron is a Conservative).

"Big Society," to my set of American political antennae at least, suggests another "big" term: "big tent." It's been around in American English since the 1980s to mean "welcoming all sorts and not being ideologically narrow," as the Online Etymology Dictionary explains, originally in reference to religion and only later to politics.

Big came into English about 1300, meaning "powerful, strong," but of obscure origin. "Possibly from a Scandinavian source," the dictionary speculates, citing a Norwegian word, bugge, meaning "great man." But great today tends to refer to character. Grand describes that which is impressive, or aspires to be – Grand Central Terminal and the Grand Concourse, in New York; the Grand Strand, down in Myrtle Beach, S.C.; or the "grand ballrooms" of countless conference hotels.

And let's not forget gross. It's been used to mean "disgusting" since the 1950s, but originally (around 1350) it simply meant "large." It maintains a connection with "large scale" and the idea of wholesale (en gros in French) or "gross domestic product."

Some other languages fold all or most of these meanings into one word. The French get a lot of mileage (kilometers?) out of grand, for instance.

Bolshoi, in the name of Moscow's famous theater (and opera and ballet), means simply "big" – or "grand," as we might say.

But not every big is necessarily grand. And so in constructs like big business, big labor, big oil, or big tobacco, or more recently, big pharma, big is, helpfully, relatively neutral.

It may be no big deal. But it's always good to have options.

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