WORDS: HUGE

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"How was the skiing?" I asked a friend. "Huge," was his answer. This was a new one on me. The more usual word these days for anything that gives more than pleasure would be "large", as in "he's having it large". It could be that, in the way of these things, "large" is already losing out to the need for something stronger.

Until recently, the usual answer to such questions would have been "great". This does not, of course, mean that "huge" will ever entirely supplant the earlier word. "Did you look great in '98?" was the headline on an end-of-year article in the Sunday Telegraph. The correct response to "Do I look all right?" is still "You look great", not "You look huge". But I expect "huge", if not "large", to gain currency in the coming years.

The trouble with "great" is that its credibility rating is wearing thin. It was fine in its early days, when it stopped being just a measure of size and began to stand for something fine and noble as well, but that was a very long time ago. It can now be as perfunctory as you like - an acknowledgement of small favours, a sign of agreement, or perhaps a way of conveying sarcasm ("I'm afraid I wiped that tape." - "Oh, great").

Genuine gratitude is also becoming harder to express, and for the same sort of reason. "Thanks a lot for your present" is pretty cool these days, the phrase having been used too often in an ironical sense. A touch of hyperbole may be needed if true feeling is to be shown. ("Your present was something else" would do the trick.) "Great" has fared worse in this respect than its near-synonym "big", whose metaphorical sense will always carry some warmth. The Big Day is still the Big Day.

Meanwhile fashions come and go. "Monstrous" and "monstrously" had a good long innings until they fell out of favour in the late 19th century, and are now strictly reserved for serious purposes. "Vastly", the modish intensifying verb of the 18th century (when it was often pronounced vawstly), is much diminished now, and can hardly be used without a slight period flavour, except when one is talking about things that are vastly inferior, or improved, or different.

"Hugely", on the other hand, looks as though it will run. Its resonances remain strong and healthy. Wordsworth was so taken by "huge" that he used it twice in the space of a few lines to describe the cliff which seemed to rise out of nowhere and, "like a living thing, strode after me" when as a boy he rowed across Ullswater by moonlight; he was obsessed for several days afterwards by what he called "huge and mighty Forms". Even today the word is capable of evoking impressive, almost threatening bulk, something that "massive" has long since lost as a result of its gross overuse, first by the politically committed ("massive injustice", etc), then by ordinary journalists.

In due course, "huge" will follow "great" and "massive" in a limbo of discarded qualifiers, with no power to evoke anything much. But it won't happen yet.

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