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Pronounced /hjuːˈmʌŋɡəs/Help with IPA

This American word has established itself so well in the language that William Safire reported a couple of years ago it had been put into the mouth of Thomas Jefferson in a television programme. If so, that was a sad anachronism, since humongous first darted on to the linguistic stage only in the middle 1960s, apparently as a bit of college slang, but hit the big time almost immediately and has been with us ever since.

That’s despite grumpy comments like those of William Hartston in the British newspaper The Independent, who said it was “surely one of the ugliest words ever to slither its way into our dictionaries” and “a silly and affected synonym for huge or enormous”, adding that “it serves no purpose not covered by those words and is thus redundant”.

Steady on, old chap! It’s surely in the same class as skittishly humorous words like ginormous (which arose in World War Two military slang) and the set of words for large amounts based on creative augmentations of million, such as zillion, bazillion, gazillion, and squillion. Our word was probably based on an amalgam of huge and monstrous, influenced by the stress pattern of stupendous or tremendous.

Page created 18 Jan. 2003

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World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–2014. All rights reserved.
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Last modified: 18 January 2003.