The Grammarphobia Blog

The evolution of ‘enormity’

Q: I’m bothered by the use of “enormity” in this sentence: “We can’t let the enormity of the climate crisis prevent us from doing what needs to be done.” Yes, climate change is not only bigness but also badness. Still I think this is a misuse.

A: “Enormity” is a word often found in writing about climate change and its effects, and we think it’s being used appropriately.

When journalists write things like “the sheer enormity of the climate challenge” (the Guardian), “the enormity of global warming” (Scientific American), “the enormity of climate change” (National Geographic), and “the enormity of the climate problem” (The Hill), they’re using the noun for something that’s not just huge but huge in a disconcerting, overwhelming, or alarming way.

As we wrote in 2007, “enormity” has traditionally been a negative word, meaning badness rather than bigness. But in the 12 years since we wrote that post, usage has been shifting and it apparently still is. Many lexicographers now accept a definition that combines the two notions into one.

We checked 10 standard dictionaries and found some differences of opinion. As expected, all still include the traditional definition of “enormity” as monstrous evil or wickedness. But almost all accept other definitions as well.

The predominant opinion seems to be that definitions of “enormity” now include hugeness or immensity of a difficult, grave, or serious nature—that is, vast size with a negative judgment attached.

For instance, the definitions of “enormity” in Lexico (formerly Oxford Dictionaries Online) include this one: “the great or extreme scale, seriousness, or extent of something perceived as bad or morally wrong.” And this one is from Longman: “the great size, seriousness, or difficulty of a situation, problem, event, etc.”

Some dictionaries go further and include a neutral sense of “enormity” that was once considered incorrect: great size or extent, as in “the enormity of the universe.” The definitions in Merriam-Webster Unabridged and Merriam-Webster Online, for instance, include “the quality or state of being huge.”

Lexico, too, accepts what it calls a “neutral use” in which the noun means “large size or scale,” as in “I began to get a sense of the enormity of the task.” This newer sense, Lexico suggests, was “influenced by enormous.”

But in a usage note, Lexico says this sense “generally relates to something difficult, such as a task, challenge, or achievement,” so even there, the so-called “neutral use” seems to have a negative and not-so-neutral element.

For now, we at Grammarphobia still have reservations about a completely neutral use of “enormity” for size alone with no negative connotations.

And some leading dictionaries agree with us. They either omit a neutral definition (as with Collins and Longman), or attach warning labels. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language labels it a “usage problem,” and Webster’s New World College Dictionary (5th ed.) says it’s “considered a loose usage by some.”

We suspect that Merriam-Webster is ahead of the curve here, and that someday “enormity” will be completely accepted in the sense of enormousness alone, with no negative flavor at all. But we don’t think it’s there yet, especially since it’s rarely used in a positive way (as in “The enormity of the swimming pool is a selling point”).

It’s interesting that originally there was no notion of size in either the noun “enormity” or the adjective “enormous.” When they first appeared in English, “enormity” in the 1400s and “enormous” in the 1500s, the two words had to do with deviation from moral or legal norms.

They’re derived from Latin—the noun ēnormitātem, the adjective ēnormis—in which the ē prefix means “out” and norma means a “mason’s square” or “pattern,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The first to enter English, the OED says, was “enormity,” borrowed from the French énormité. The dictionary’s earliest example is from a medieval life of St. Mary of Egypt, the prostitute who became an ascetic. This is the quotation, from a circa 1480 copy of a text thought to date from before 1400:

“Nothire stekis fra goddis mercy of þe syne þe quantyte, na ȝet of It þe Inormyte” (“Neither the multitude of the sin nor yet the enormity of it shuts out god’s mercy”).

As used there, Oxford says, the noun meant “deviation from moral or legal rectitude.” Before long, in the 1470s, it was used in another sense: “a breach of law or morality; a transgression, crime.”

The adjective “enormous,” borrowed directly from the Latin ēnormis, was used in a similar way early on. Its original meaning, the OED says, was “deviating from ordinary rule or type; abnormal, unusual, extraordinary, unfettered by rules; hence, mostly in bad sense, strikingly irregular, monstrous, shocking.”

Here’s the dictionary’s earliest example: “Soo shall this enormous facte be loked vppon with worthye correction.” (From The Testament of Master Wylliam Tracie, written sometime before 1533 by John Frith. William Tracy was an early Lutheran, and the “enormous facte” that Frith refers to is presumably the exhumation and public burning of Tracy’s body after the reading of his will, which declared his dissident faith and denied any bequests to the Catholic clergy.)

But soon “enormous” was being used to mean merely large, or, as the OED puts it, “excessive or extraordinary in size, magnitude, or intensity; huge, vast, immense.” Oxford has one example from 1544 and several more from the mid-1600s onward. This remains “the only current sense” of the word, the dictionary adds.

Meanwhile, in the 17th and 18th centuries, this neutral use of “enormous” in the sense of size began to influence “enormity.” Instead of a mere crime or a moral lapse, an “enormity” was ratcheted up in magnitude to “extreme or monstrous wickedness” or “a gross and monstrous offence,” the OED says.

For instance, an 18th-century author quoted in the OED uses the phrase “deeds of peculiar enormity and rigour” to describe the mass executions and atrocities committed by the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés and his men against the Mexican population (The History of America, 1777, by William Robertson).

So an element of hugeness has been part of “enormity” for several hundred years, alongside the notion of something bad or morally wrong.

The OED does include a definition of hugeness alone: “excess in magnitude; hugeness, vastness.” But it labels the usage “obsolete,” adding that “recent examples might perhaps be found, but the use is now regarded as incorrect.”

This is the dictionary’s earliest use of “enormity” as hugeness: “A worm of proportionable enormity had bored a hole in the shell” (from a 1792 edition of Baron Munchausen’s Narrative of his Marvellous Travels and Campaigns in Russia, a fictional account by Rudolf Erich Raspe).

The OED is not a standard dictionary but an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence. Its entry for the “enormity” has not been fully updated, and none of its examples, for any of the meanings of “enormity,” go beyond the 19th century.

In fact, its newest example, from 1891, is something of a joke: “ ‘You have no idea of the enormity of my business transactions,’ said an eminent Stock Exchange speculator to a friend. He was perhaps nearer the truth than he intended.”

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