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shameless pleading

Enormity

Really big shew tonight.

Dear Word Detective: Can you comment on the proper usage of the word “enormity”? As I understand it, the word used to mean something like, “having the quality of an atrocity or an outrage.” Now, it seems to be used routinely — even by TV journalists and public figures — merely as a word denoting size (i.e., “immensity”). Who decides what usages of a word are “improper” and when older usages should be considered “archaic”? — James Rhodes.

Well, the short answer to that question is “You do.” Remember when you were a kid and grownups told you that various things were “not a popularity contest,” i.e., sometimes the crowd isn’t right? That was good advice. The English language, however, actually is a popularity contest. Every word we say and every rule of grammar or usage we follow exists because more English speakers used them than the alternatives at the time, which are now considered “archaic” or “obsolete.” More specifically, dictionary editors don’t declare a usage “standard” or “archaic” without doing serious research into how it’s actually used in everyday life by the majority of people.

The debate over the proper use of “enormity” has been going on for more than a century at this point, conducted largely in usage manuals, most of which declare that “enormity” should only be used to mean “monstrous evil” (e.g., “the enormity of the Holocaust”) and that using it to mean “great size” or “immensity” in either a literal or figurative sense is a grievous error. The proper choice if one means “immensity,” they say, is “enormousness.” The vehemence with which this rule is often proclaimed is surprising, inasmuch as it lacks any apparent basis in the history of the word.

Both “enormity” and “enormousness” developed from the Latin “enormis,” formed from the prefix “e” (out of, beyond) plus “norma,” rule or boundary (also the source of “normal,” etc.). “Enormity” is the older of the two words, appearing in the early 16th century, while “enormousness” didn’t show up until about 100 years later. Interestingly, both words originally meant the same thing: something that was greatly outside the bounds of normalcy, far exceeding what would be expected. Both words also originally carried strong connotations of wickedness (“Such is the infinitenesse, and enormousnesse of our rebellious sin,” J. Donne, circa 1631).

So both “enormity” and “enormousness” were used to mean “great wrong or monstrous evil” until the late 18th century, when they both also began to be used in the sense of “hugeness,” “vastness” or “immensity” without any connotation of immorality or evil (“A worm of proportionable enormity had bored a hole in the shell,” 1792). This usage could refer to either literal size (“Of the properties of the Peak of Teneriffe accounts are extant which describe its enormity,” 1830) or, figuratively, to something that is daunting or forbidding in difficulty (“… the enormity of the task of teachers in slum schools,” 1961).

Suddenly, in the late 19th century, pretty much out of thin air, usage arbiters began to declare the use of “enormity” to mean a morally-neutral “hugeness” or “vastness” incorrect, and to insist that “enormity” could only be used to mean “great evil.” If you wanted to speak of great size, either literal or metaphorical, you were to stick to “enormousness,” a word so awkward that almost everyone who heeded the new prohibition chose “immensity” and other alternatives.

If it were possible to legislate language, I’d actually vote to make “enormity” mean only “great evil.” I understand the urge to reserve one truly powerful word to describe nothing but monstrous crimes. But it isn’t possible. Although most usage guides of the “watch your language” school continue to insist on the “great evil” definition of “enormity” as the only acceptable use, it’s apparent that the prohibition against “enormity” meaning “immensity” is fading fast in popular usage. Even some notable language mavens, the late William Safire among them, threw in the towel on the question years ago. The practical problem, however, is that the world is full of people who still cling to the “rule” about “enormity,” many of whom occupy positions of power and may look askance at a reference to the “enormity” of your email inbox. So in venues where usage “traditionalists” may be lurking (job interviews, the comments section on the New York Times website, etc.), it’s probably best to stick to something a bit less controversial. I’d go with “ginormousness.”

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