Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Evil of Enormity

Jabba the HuttI learned today from FakeAPStylebook that the word enormity describes something that is really, really bad rather than something that is very large. Did you know that already, or is it just me?

The definitions of enormity that are given on are:

  1. The quality of passing all moral bounds; excessive wickedness or outrageousness.
  2. A monstrous offense or evil; an outrage. goes on to note that
Enormity is frequently used to refer simply to the property of being great in size or extent, but many would prefer that enormousness (or a synonym such as immensity) be used for this general sense and that enormity be limited to situations that demand a negative moral judgment, as in Not until the war ended and journalists were able to enter Cambodia did the world really become aware of the enormity of Pol Pot's oppression.... This distinction between enormity and enormousness has not always existed historically, but nowadays many observe it. Writers who ignore the distinction, as in the enormity of the President's election victory or the enormity of her inheritance, may find that their words have cast unintended aspersions or evoked unexpected laughter.
Who are these "many" who prefer the more restricted meaning? The word is derived from the French énormité, which came from the Latin enormis, which meant huge or unusual, so I'm not sure when or how it picked up this negative meaning.

My OED tells me that the first definition is "Diverging from a normal standard or type; abnormality; irregularity." Clearly, this divergence could refer to size or any other type of variation. The idea that something abnormal is automatically monstrous or wicked seems like the worst type of xenophobia.

According to the OED, even the word enormous used to have this extremely negative connotation, but now it means "Excessive or extraordinary in size, magnitude, or intensity; huge, vast, immense." And it goes on to say, "This is the only current sense..."

At the same time, I do have some sympathy for those who want to retain word meanings that have become diluted. Sublime and awesome are two words that have mostly lost their meanings in current usage, both having subsided into puffy variants of great or wonderful, when actually they mean:

Sublime: Of high spiritual, moral, or intellectual worth. A greatness with which nothing else can be compared and which is beyond all possibility of calculation, measurement or imitation

Awesome: Inspiring or expressing awe, with awe meaning a mixed emotion of reverence, respect, dread, and wonder inspired by authority, genius, great beauty, sublimity, or might.

So I guess I can get used to reserving enormity for times when I want to talk about tremendous evil, as long as everyone else uses sublime and awesome properly.


Carmella said...

Awesome! I never knew that. Bark bark bark!

Michael Leddy said...

I too have blurred enormity and enormousness. I'm with you on awesome and sublime. But I want to rescue wonderful too. Says the OED: "Full of wonder; such as to excite wonder or astonishment; marvellous; sometimes used trivially = surprisingly large, fine, excellent, etc."

Daughter Number Three said...

Michael, yes awe and wonder have a lot in common. Is the tendency to inflate superlatives strictly an American problem, or do other cultures experience this?

Barbara said...

I can see why I incorrectly picked up the "large" meaning of enormity, as I often read in social isolation and picked up meaning from context only. This is my punishment for being too lazy to get the dictionary out!

I have been working for years to try to rescue "wonderful." My sister, who used to write fiction for a limited audience (mostly me!) once had a character say a line that I still quote at appropriate times when I want to take back the more powerful meaning: "You are wonderful. I am filled with wonder by you."

Now, about "awesome" and "aw(e)ful"...