Brobdingnagian. This means colossal, huge, humongous, tremendous. I remember having lunch with Bill McKibben, the environmental writer and activitist (who spearheaded the successful protests at the White House to stop the Keystone Pipeline last December) in the early eighties, when he was writing for the New Yorker’s Talk of the Town, and I was writing “long fact” for the magazine, and he said he had been making a list of all the words for big and really big. But Brobdingnagian was not one of the. It is a reference to the fictional land in Gulliver’s Travels where everybody is a giant. It’s a very New Yorker word, probably the only place you would ever see it. The first time I saw the word was in a piece by the New Yorker’s environmental correspondant Virginia Kolbert. She referred to the tar-sands processing complexes in Alberta as “Brobdingnagian.” Aren’t we clever and sophisticated, I thought. It was this sort prissiness, this precious pirouetting, that drove me up the wall and ultimately, in l986, out the door and into the arms of Vanity Fair. I told Mark Abley, who writes about language for the Montreal Gazette, about Kolbert’s usage, and he said : “Brobdingnagian, eh ? The number of people who would understand that is Lilliputian.”
So what do I see in the New York Times, in a February 13 appreciation of Whitney Huston by Jon Caramanca, but : “Houston’s signature was to let her Brobdingnagian voice soar unfettered.” I wondered if Mr. Caramanca had read Ms. Kolbert’s reporter-at-large piece from the tar sands and filed away the hundred-dollar word (which he probably had to look up), for further usage. Does Brobdingnagian have the legs of oxymoron ? I don’t think so. So why not use a word that is understood by her audience, by the mainstream American popular music milieu like “big-ass?” Then you’d have to do something about “unfettered” at the end of the sentence. A whole re-write to get rid of the affectations.