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On “enormity” and “enormousness”

Q: I heard you say on the Leonard Lopate Show that it’s incorrect to use the word “enormity” to mean hugeness. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary disagrees with you and argues that critics of this usage don’t recognize its subtlety. Any comment, please?

A: I have to disagree with that usage note in Merriam-Webster’s. Where is the “subtlety” in abandoning the long-established distinction between “enormity” and “enormousness”? Traditionally, “enormity” refers to something that’s immensely wicked or monstrous or outrageous, while “enormousness” refers to size alone.

Bryan A. Garner, in his Dictionary of Modern American Usage, says careful writers still observe the distinction: “The historical differentiation between these words should not be muddled. Enormousness = hugeness, vastness. Enormity = outrageousness, ghastliness, hideousness.”

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language says 59 percent of its Usage Panel “rejects the use of enormity as a synonym for immensity …. Writers who ignore the distinction … may find that their words have cast unintended aspersions or evoked unexpected laughter.”

Imagine, for instance, an Op-Ed piece about the artist Christo, remarking on the “enormity” of his works. Does the writer mean to comment on their size or their hideousness? The mushing together of these ideas can result only in ambiguity, not subtlety.

The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage, The Chicago Manual of Style, and many, many other usage references agree that “enormity” should not be used in the sense of largeness.

Lexicographers, the folks who write the dictionaries, must document the language as it is used, not the language as it OUGHT to be used. It may be that the old distinction between “enormity” and “enormousness” will eventually break down and be lost. For now, we still have it, it’s still useful, and we would do well to observe it.

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