Oh, the enormity…

I’ll bet you think you know the meaning of the word “enormity.” And I’ll be that at least 8 out of 10 people are wrong…at least according to dictionaries.

Enormity does not mean “very big.” It’s not a synonym for large, or huge, or gargantuan. It in fact means “extreme or monstrous wickedness” (all the definitions, etymologies, and historical uses that I’m presenting today are from the OED, unless noted otherwise). An enormity is an egregious violation of law (especially moral law), a heinous crime.

The obscure definitions are less extreme, indicating that in the past enormity signified an abnormality or irregularity, some deviation from the norm. This is where the word’s origins show most clearly: it’s from the Latin enormis, which would (in the most neutral literal sense), mean “not normal.”

Enormous has the same Latin root as enormity. But properly used, enormous does in fact mean “huge, vast, immense,” unlike its evil cousin. Why so different?

These two words are a regular feature on Internet language blogs. Geoff Nunberg did a thoughtful piece in September of 2002, in a post-9/11 context. Eugene Volokh mused on it six years later. Type “enormity vs enormous” into Google and you’ll get over four million results (a more refined search, “enormity vs enormousness” still yields 6,250 hits, not including the one you’re currently reading). It’s a frequent point of confusion, but perhaps a more frequent point for scolding by the grammar police.

Here’s a typical “misuse” (I use the term conditionally, which will be explained better below):

“When we talked to suppliers and vendors, my dad realized we were on to something,” says Jessica. “In fact, the more people he talked to the more he saw the enormity of the opportunity.” (Waltham News Tribune, 25 Jan 2012) [it’s on page 3, in the 9th paragraph]

By strict usage, this would mean that the opportunity was monstrously evil. (And yet… they were on to something.) But most English speakers won’t notice a problem with this use.

Here’s the real point of contention. This word demonstrates the fluidity of language over time. The common (incorrect) usage, describing something vast, existed in the 18th and 19th centuries, but then was mostly eclipsed until recent decades, when it’s returned with a vengeance. We should recognize that the definition of neither word was ever set in stone, and each will likely continue to compete with, overlap with, and influence the other.

These words seemed to once be completely interchangeable, but if the OED’s citations and etymologies are any indication, they’d probably grown into their separate definitions by sometime in the mid 18th century (with intermittent confusion reigning ever since). I think the case can be made that OED’s editors need to look at these words more carefully. For example, look at this portion of their text for enormous:

3. a. Excessive or extraordinary in size, magnitude, or intensity; huge, vast, immense.This is the only current sense, and appears to have influenced the later use of senses 1, 2.

1544    T. Phaer Regim. Lyfe (1560) I iij,   Paine of the stone is one of ye moste enormous paynes that the body of man is vexed with.
1662    J. Glanvill Lux Orient. ii. 13   What an inormous strength, bad education hath to deprave and pervert well dispos’d inclinations.
1667    Milton Paradise Lost i. 511   Titan Heav’ns first born With his enormous brood.
1774    O. Goldsmith Hist. Earth III. 31   The urus‥of the large enormous kind of Lithuania.
1827    R. Pollok Course of Time I. i. 20   Worn and wasted with enormous wo.
1836    W. Macgillivray Trav. & Res. A. von Humboldt xxvii. 421   The line of enormous cracks and fissures.
1849    T. B. Macaulay Hist. Eng. I. 190   The fortress of Tangier‥was repaired and kept up at an enormous charge.
1860    J. Tyndall Glaciers of Alps i. §2. 11   These avalanches‥consist of enormous blocks of ice.

It seems to me that despite the definition they’re being used to support, the first three examples here (all from the 16th and 17th centuries) could easily support the “monstrous wickedness” definition of enormity instead. Aren’t kidney or gall stones painful to a hideous degree? Didn’t Milton intend his readers to view that brood as repugnant? If even the sharp folks at Oxford find the distinctions blurry, there isn’t much hope for the rest of us.

On the positive side, OED’s definitions include a few notes to the effect that one use or another has priority, and that the common uses of both words have influenced each other.

I recommend that writers simply skunk enormity entirely. If you mean to say enormous, then say it. If you really need that adjective form, go ahead and use enormousness. Some find that an ugly or cumbersome word, but it’s more technically correct (and it’s not, as some would have you believe, a recent coinage: first use in this sense dates to at least 1802). If you mean to use enormity correctly…make the effort to find a better word or phrase to get your meaning across. Unless you’re writing to an extremely well-educated (and formal) audience, or perhaps in a legal context, you’re more likely to cause confusion than to enlighten.

Note: The title of this post is a reference to the famous quotation recorded during the crash of the Hindenburg, “oh, the humanity.” I think it’s safe to say that that tragedy could be described as both an enormous disaster and an event of enormity without attracting the wrath of any but the most fanatical usage sticklers (who would, I’m sure, insist that because it was an accident and not a willful act, enormity doesn’t apply). To those folks, I suggest you start your own blogs, perhaps focusing on the differences between a living language and a dead one.


About thebettereditor

Chris holds a BA degree in history from the University of Virginia and a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) Degree in writing from the University of Southern Maine (Stonecoast). He has worked extensively with professional and semi-professional writers and enthusiastic amateurs for about 20 years. He has several years experience in scientific publishing, but has also worked in information technology, insurance, health care, and education (he taught writing at the university level for a number of years). Since 2011, he's also specialized in helping small business meet their writing and editing needs on a budget.
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3 Responses to Oh, the enormity…

  1. Pingback: That, Which, Who: which should you use? | thebettereditor

  2. atarunomiko says:

    Going for a four in four: another it’s/its error in “it’s evil cousin.”

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