Thursday, November 13, 2008


Oh, the enormity of it!

In Judith Warner’s New York Times blog this week, she writes Tears to Remember, shares tears of joy and relief over an election result that, she says, eclipses September 11th in how it will shape the world of her children.

As I read these items through the RSS feeds, the first things I see of an item are its headline (the RSS title tag) and a brief summary (the RSS description tag), and often neither of those were written by the item’s author. In this case, the title probably was written by Ms Warner, but the description, the summary, probably was not.

It read thus:

The author wonders if her children will understand the enormity of Barack Obama’s achievement.
“Enormity” is a tricky word: it doesn’t mean what it looks like it might.

“Enormous”, of course, means very, very large, indeed, but to understand “enormity” we have to go back to the original meaning of “enormous”, sense 2 below, now labelled “archaic” by American Heritage:

enormous adj.
1. Very great in size, extent, number, or degree; immense.
2. Archaic. Very wicked; heinous.
The Latin root simply means “out of the norm”, and over time “enormous” has come to mean abnormally large, rather than abnormally bad.

“Enormity“ has not made that shift in meaning. Again, from American Heritage:

enormity n.
1. The quality of passing all moral bounds; excessive wickedness or outrageousness.
2. A monstrous offense or evil; outrage.

The events of 11 September, 2001, may certainly be described with the word “enormity”. The eclipsing event that Ms Warner writes about — the election of our first non-white president — is by current terms an enormous achievement, but by current terms involves no enormity. To be sure, there are those who think of the election of President Obama as a monstrous offense, but Ms Warner clearly does not play on those swings.

One can wonder when “enormity” will go the way of “enormous” and make that change in meaning, especially when the blurb-writers for no less an authority than the New York Times, once a fortress of correct usage, drift that way.

But it isn’t there yet.


lidija said...

Your pedant's posts sometimes drive me up the wall, Barry, but they teach me too. Enormously. :-)

Barry Leiba said...

But it's so much fun to be pedantic!

Lisa Simeone said...

I think this is one of those cases where we're better off going with the flow. Even Michael Quinion of World Wide Words has given up on it:
(he's written about it before; this is just the latest)

But as an equally schoolmarmish pedant (and one who takes delight in it!), I still draw the line at other now-common misuses and will to my dying day: "impact" is NOT a verb; and it's "sympathy," goddamnit, not "empathy," which is a 20th century psychobabble invention.

Too many more to name. I'm sure there will be ample bloggo-opportunity at a later time . . . !

lidija said...

You guys need to tool and re-tool, utilize and action it.

thom said...

Whoa, synchronicity. Jeff and I were just having a discussion yesterday at lunch about the mis-use of some words, and "enormity" was one of the specific words that came up.

Peeush Trikha said...

Quite informative . I was also of opinion that "Enormity" means Big or Huge .

Fluffy Bunny Slippers said... lists a third definition of the word "enormity" to include "greatness of size, scope, extent, or influence; immensity: The enormity of such an act of generosity is staggering."

I think your dictionary may be out of date.

Barry Leiba said...

Well, one can often find a dictionary that's permissive enough to support one's misuse.

*Sandra* said...

Mr. Leiba, you appear to be holding a pint of bitter, so maybe you're British (as am I). Cheers, mate. But your blog title suggests you are at least domiciled in the USA (as am I). So if we're being pedantic, maybe you'd better start putting your periods inside your closing quotation marks (Chicago Manual 5.11--5.13). Or not, as you see fit.

kenyadee said...

The Merriam-Webster online dictionary posts this regarding enormity:
usage Enormity, some people insist, is improperly used to denote large size. They insist on enormousness for this meaning, and would limit enormity to the meaning “great wickedness.” Those who urge such a limitation may not recognize the subtlety with which enormity is actually used. It regularly denotes a considerable departure from the expected or normal (they awakened; they sat up; and then the enormity of their situation burst upon them. “How did the fire start?” — John Steinbeck). When used to denote large size, either literal or figurative, it usually suggests something so large as to seem overwhelming (no intermediate zone of study. Either the enormity of the desert or the sight of a tiny flower — Paul Theroux) (the enormity of the task of teachers in slum schools — J. B. Conant) and may even be used to suggest both great size and deviation from morality (the enormity of existing stockpiles of atomic weapons — New Republic). It can also emphasize the momentousness of what has happened (the sombre enormity of the Russian Revolution — George Steiner) or of its consequences (perceived as no one in the family could the enormity of the misfortune — E. L. Doctorow).

I still don't think it's the best word in the article in question, but may not be as grievous an error as you've made it seem.

Thanks for the blog, though! I'll check in again. Seems interetsing.

Barry Leiba said...

Sandra, actually, it's a Hefeweizen, but I'm neither German nor British. One might, therefore, say that I should also stop typing "colour" and "flavour", but I won't. And I sometimes say "different to", and I call the small room down the hall "the loo"[1]. I'd much sooner change those, in fact, than change the placement of my punctuation to the American style, which I find silly and indefensible.

One needn't be British to think that.
[1] I do not, however, call the fixtures in that room "yoo-RYE-nals".

*Sandra* said...

Well there's no accounting for taste. You should swig a pint of Tetley's Bitter, sometime, or a Boddington's -- the "cream of Manchester".

I've been a "paid by the page", so to speak, technical writer here for many years, so I had to get used to it. But here's an interesting thing... I have always thought of "specialty" (as opposed to "speciality') as an Americanism -- like "winningest" and "gotten" and "dove". But I was only this evening reading Josephine Tey's "Miss Pym Disposes", published in 1948, and she uses the word. So am I dumbfounded or confounded? Maybe both.

Barry Leiba said...

Bemused, probably.