November 20, 2012

The Enormity of a Usage Problem

Recently on Twitter, Mark Allen wrote, “Despite once being synonyms, ‘enormity’ and ‘enormousness’ are different. Try to keep ‘enormity’ for something evil or outrageous.” I’ll admit right off that this usage problem interests me because I didn’t learn about the distinction until a few years ago. To me, they’re completely synonymous, and the idea of using enormity to mean “an outrageous, improper, vicious, or immoral act” and not “the quality or state of being huge”, as Merriam-Webster defines it, seems almost quaint.

Of course, such usage advice presupposes that people are using the two words synonymously; if they weren’t, there’d be no reason to tell them to keep the words separate, so the assertion that they’re different is really an exhortation to make them different. Given that, I had to wonder how different they really are. I turned to Mark Davies Corpus of Contemporary American English to get an idea of how often enormity is used in the sense of great size rather than outrageousness or immorality. I looked at the first hundred results from the keyword-in-context option, which randomly samples the corpus, and tried to determine which of the four Merriam-Webster definitions was being used. For reference, here are the four definitions:

1 : an outrageous, improper, vicious, or immoral act <the enormities of state power — Susan Sontag> <other enormities too juvenile to mention — Richard Freedman>
2 : the quality or state of being immoderate, monstrous, or outrageous; especially : great wickedness <the enormity of the crimes committed during the Third Reich — G. A. Craig>
3 : the quality or state of being huge : immensity <the inconceivable enormity of the universe>
4 : a quality of momentous importance or impact <the enormity of the decision>>

In some cases it was a tough call; for instance, when someone writes about the enormity of poverty in India, enormity has a negative connotation, but it doesn’t seem right to substitute a word like monstrousness or wickedness. It seems that the author simply means the size of the problem. I tried to use my best judgement based on the context the corpus provides, but in some cases I weaseled out by assigning a particular use to two definitions. Here’s my count:

1: 1
2: 19
2/3: 3
3: 67
3/4: 1
4: 9

By far the most common use is in the sense of “enormousness”; the supposedly correct senses of great wickedness (definitions 1 and 2) are used just under a quarter of the time. So why did Mr. Allen say that enormity and enormousness were once synonyms? Even the Oxford English Dictionary marks the “enormousness” sense as obsolete and says, “Recent examples might perh. be found, but the use is now regarded as incorrect.” Perhaps? It’s clear from the evidence that it’s still quite common—about three times as common as the prescribed “monstrous wickedness” sense.

It’s true that the sense of immoderateness or wickedness came along before the sense of great size. The first uses as recorded in the OED are in the sense of “a breach of law or morality” (1477), “deviation from moral or legal rectitude” (1480), “something that is abnormal” (a1513), and “divergence from a normal standard or type” (a1538). The sense of “excess in magnitude”—the one that the OED marks as obsolete and incorrect—didn’t come along until 1792. In all these senses the etymology is clear: the word comes from enorm, meaning “out of the norm”.

As is to be expected, Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage has an excellent entry on the topic. It notes that many of the uses of enormity considered objectionable carry shades of meaning or connotations not shown by enormousness:

Quite often enormity will be used to suggest a size that is beyond normal bounds, a size that is unexpectedly great. Hence the notion of monstrousness may creep in, but without the notion of wickedness. . . .

In many instances the notion of great size is colored by aspects of the first sense of enormity as defined in Webster’s Second. One common figurative use blends together notions of immoderateness, excess, and monstrousness to suggest a size that is daunting or overwhelming.

Indeed, it’s the blending of senses that made it hard to categorize some of the uses that I came across in COCA. Enormousness does not seem to be a fitting replacement for those blended or intermediate senses, and, as MWDEU notes, it’s never been a popular word anyway. Interestingly, MWDEU also notes that “the reasons for stigmatizing the size sense of enormity are not known.” Perhaps it became rare in the 1800s, when the OED marked it obsolete, and the rule was created before the sense enjoyed a resurgence in the twentieth century. Whatever the reason, I don’t think it makes much sense to condemn the more widely used sense of a word just because it’s newer or was rare at some point in the past. MWDEU sensibly concludes, “We have seen that there is no clear basis for the ‘rule’ at all. We suggest that you follow the writers rather than the critics: writers use enormity with a richness and subtlety that the critics have failed to take account of. The stigmatized sense is entirely standard and has been for more than a century and a half.”

Semantics, Usage, Words 15 Replies to “The Enormity of a Usage Problem”
Jonathon Owen
Jonathon Owen


15 thoughts on “The Enormity of a Usage Problem

    Author’s gravatar

    I’d like to see a complete list of the collocates, so maybe I’ll try to recreate your corpus results. I’m guessing that the denotation of enormity is simply size and that the connotation of wickedness (or lack thereof) is supplied by the collocates – crimes vs. decisions, etc. I suppose your basic temperament determines whether the enormity of the universe has positive or negative or neutral connotations.

      Author’s gravatar

      I could send you the spreadsheet I put together of the keyword-in-context results, though you’d have to search for each one individually to get the expanded context. Unfortunately KWIC searches don’t save the results, just the search parameters.

      But I think you’re essentially right that the particular sense was usually determined by the collocates. “Enormity of the crime” is always going to be M-W sense 2. Same thing for committing an enormity. “Enormity of the challenge” or “enormity of the task” is sense 3, as is anything referring to a large object.

    Author’s gravatar

    Helpful post, Jonathon. Maybe things would be tidier if everyone stuck to enormousness when they’re talking exclusively about size, but that’s easier said than done; and besides, other connotations are often part of the semantic package.

    The figures are interesting. I see enormity used pretty often in the sense of “outrageous or monstrous act”, but probably not quite as often as the size-centred meaning. I’ve collected examples from books for a possible blog post showing the range and subtlety with which the word is used, but your corpus-based mini-study has it covered.

    Author’s gravatar

    Stan: Thanks. Does it seem to you that the “monstrous act” sense is more common in Ireland and the UK? I feel like I rarely come across it here. I’d be interested to see the examples you’ve collected.

    Author’s gravatar

    It may be. Searches on the Irish Times and UK Guardian websites show mixed usage; the “monstrous act” sense seems especially common on the Irish site, though I didn’t compare them systematically.

    Here’s one from my files: “A decent, law-abiding village cannot understand or accept the enormity of Gein’s crimes” – Judge Robert H. Gollmar, Edward Gein: America’s Most Bizarre Murderer.

    Author’s gravatar

    Because there are still those out there (me, Mark) who attach a negative connotation to “enormity,” I reserve it for that use. I don’t know who my readers are and whether they too sense that aura of evil when they hear the word, so I avoid “enormity” (although I don’t necessarily use “enormousness”) when I want to describe something just plain big as opposed to something big and bad. A friend gave a eulogy at his dad’s funeral and talked about the “enormity” of his dad’s impact on his life, and it ruined the whole thing for me—and maybe for others there?

    Author’s gravatar

    That argument makes a lot of sense, but if people use it in the “large” or “momentous” senses 75% of the time or more, I have a hard time believing that very many people will be confused. If anything, it seems more likely that a large majority will be lost if you use “enormity” to mean “great wickedness”.

    Author’s gravatar

    Purely anecdotal, my feeling is that “enormity” does have a negative connotation, but “enormousness” triggers my “not a word” alarm, so I have no idea how I would express the latter. None of the noun forms of “very large” sound like real words to me. Hugeness? Momentousness?

    Author’s gravatar


    Author’s gravatar

    This is a case where I wish the distinction could be maintained because the word “enormity” in its “great wickedness” sense seems so useful. But I don’t fight the steamroller of usage any more.

    Author’s gravatar

    Boris: It seems that it often—but not always—does have a negative connotation, even when it’s not being used in the traditional sense of “great wickedness”. One example I came across was about the enormity of the problem of poverty in India. A reader gets the sense that it’s bad and that it’s overwhelmingly large, but it doesn’t seem to fit the traditional sense of being wicked or monstrous.

    Stan: Now that’s a word that’s sure to catch on.

    Mark P: I don’t think the distinction is lost; it was pretty clear in some of the sentences in COCA that the “great wickedness” sense was being used. The context nearly always made it clear.

    Author’s gravatar

    Enormity originally just meant any deviation from the norm, small or large, good or bad. Its application to large sins only is clearly the result of semantic contamination from enormous(ness).

      Author’s gravatar

      That’s an interesting point that I hadn’t really considered. It was clear to me that the negative sense was influencing the size sense, but it seems obvious now that the influence goes both ways.

    Author’s gravatar

    Enormity has to do with deviation from the normal, the expected or the accepted. In fact a great deviation. It has nothing to do with describing the size of something. The example of the “enormity of the universe” seems like a very poor definition indeed. There are so many words and phrases to describe size and so few to describe deviation that instead of throwing in the towel on this one we might be using it properly more often.

      Author’s gravatar

      Enormity has to do with deviation from the normal, the expected or the accepted.

      How do you know this? You’re treating it as if it’s a premise, but it’s really an assertion without any support. And concluding that “the enormity of the universe” is a poor definition based on that flawed premise is begging the question.

      There are so many words and phrases to describe size and so few to describe deviation that instead of throwing in the towel on this one we might be using it properly more often.

      There are actually quite a few words that describe deviation: aberration, anomaly, discrepancy, disparity, inconsistency, irregularity, variance, and variation, just to name a few. Perhaps the problem is that enormity is not really the best word for that particular job, and so we don’t use it for that job.

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