enormity

Ah, now, here’s a word that illustrates of the enormity of the prescriptivist’s task. After all, if one is going to appeal to the gilded usage of our superior forebears, exactly which forebears were superior? If a word shifted usage over time, how do we decide which time period’s usage to cleave to? With many prescriptivists, it would seem that the real answer is “whichever one will allow me to declare the most current users wrong.”

Does that seem iniquitous? Well, that’s why I used the term enormity. You see, while sorting out shifts of meaning over time may seem an enormous task, I really meant to say that the prescriptivist’s task is atrocious, heinous, wicked. So all you prescriptivists out there who are getting out your tut-tutting fingers, ready to say “Eee! Norm! I spy an itty bitty little brain here!”: gotcha.

Yes, there are many people out there who will insist that enormity can only refer to an act of especial wickedness, some heinous atrocity; the quality of massiveness, they explain, has another word: enormousness.

Well, yes, there is enormousness, but there is also on the other side atrocity and several others that do not smack so strongly of a different word as to be generally misleading. And it also happens that those others do not have several good reasons to mean “enormousness”.

Where, in fact, does enormity come from? The same Latin source as enormous, unsurprisingly: Latin enormis, “out of the normal” or “immense”, from e(x) “out of” plus norma, which means just what it looks like it means – “norm, pattern” – and also “mason’s square”.

Enormous entered English in the 1500s meaning “deviant, extravagant” and also “monstrous, abnormally wicked” (a more specific sense of the basic meaning) and “of exceptionally large size”. Only the last meaning survived.

Enormity, for its part, arrived in English around the same time (or even a bit earlier, as enormous was preceded by enorm meaning the same things) and meant, yes, “irregularity, abnormality, extravagance” and “great wickedness, monstrous offence”. By the 1700s it was being used to mean “excessive magnitude”. So aha! you may say. The size sense came later!

Well, yea and nay. Remember that the size thing is part of the original Latin meaning. But there’s one more word to look at: enormousness. It appeared in English in the 1600s meaning “immorality, gross wickedness”; later, in the 1800s, it came to have the sense “excessive magnitude”. So enormousness is even newer to the sense than enormity – and has a greater claim to meaning “great wickedness” exclusively, if we want to go by historical priority.

But, now, the protest may be made, “Perhaps the source may suggest magnitude, but ‘gross wickedness’ is what the word has come to mean, so the ‘excess magnitude’ sense is wrong.” Well, the protest may be made if you want to go hunting and shoot your dog, that is. You can’t really say “People who use it that way are wrong because people don’t use it that way.” The fact is that they do, as demonstrated by the insistent corrections, which would be unnecessary if they didn’t. Current dictionaries reflect this usage as well.

But, ah, linguistic proscriptions are like thought viruses. Once someone says “You can’t use that word that way!” it seems to stick in the mind. Perhaps it’s because language functions by dividing up reality into more and more little bits to mix and match, and another restriction equals another division. Or perhaps it’s just that people are more attuned to “thou shalt not” rules than to “thou mayest” rules. And, indeed, a certain amount of precision in language is a good thing – I, too, inveigh on occasion against unnecessarily sloppy usage of words. But there’s a difference between trying to keep the sense of a word from being bleached beyond usefulness and militating against an established sense of a word mainly with the effect of trumping others. I’m all for maximizing the expressive potential of the language – and not using it as some status-focused gotcha game. (Yes, I said “gotcha” above. It was to put the shoe on the other foot.)

And what would I do with enormity? Well, as a word taster, I would taste it and, having tasted it, spit it into the spittoon handily provided, just as wine tasters may do with wine. Its form clearly conduces to one sense while it has another meaning still in use that some hold is the only correct meaning. It is simply too hot to the tongue, I would say; leave it out of your recipes. If you find that it tastes a bit like ignore me, so much the better. A pity; it skips off the tongue more nicely than enormousness, I think – a better rhythm, a lighter touch, if perhaps less massive-feeling. But do you truly wish to be faced with the enormity of the prescriptivist position?

Thanks to Alan Yoshioka for suggesting (some time ago) enormity.

4 responses to “enormity

  1. The other thing to be said is that enormousness is a rare word; there are only 118,000 Google hits for it just now, versus three and a half million for enormity.

    • Enormity is just a more likeable word, isn’t it? Reasonably open, and fairly concise spelling. Enormousness is like an enormous mess. It’s heavy, and hissy, and, well, enormous. Which goes to show that potential sound symbolism or formal iconicity is not necessarily a determining factor in usage.

  2. It’s hard to maintain any economy of language if you have to explain which sense of a word you mean every time you use it. I have thus stopped using ‘enormity’.

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