ENORMITY: 1. “excessive wickedness or evil. Everyone was shocked by the enormity of the crime. 2. a monstrous or outrageous act; very wicked crime.” — The American Heritage Dictionary, Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language
Enormity was our very first entry (on August 3, 2006). Here is how the original entry read. An update follows:
Enormity and enormous share the same root: e (outside) + norma (rule). But whereas enormous describes abnormality of size, enormity describes something outside the rule of morality. (Perhaps in our age of moral relativism, the convergence of enormity and enormous is appropriate.) As you can see from the examples below, the lexicide of enormity knows no political boundary.
The enormous irony is that in each case, the speaker wanted to describe something both great in size and honor. One correctly refers to the enormity of the Holocaust, but surely, Mel Gibson (click here for his exact quotation) didn’t mean to say that Christ’s sacrifice was an act of tremendous evil.
So why do learned speakers, including the last three presidents, use enormity inappropriately when a perfectly serviceable word such as magnitude will do? Probably just pretentiousness. They and their speechwriters are guilty of attempted lexicide — if not an act of enormity, then certainly one of ignorance.
“…the enormity of Christ’s sacrifice.” (Reuters story on “The Passion of the Christ”, Feb. 14, 2004)
“The road ahead will be long and hard, given the enormity of the task.” (Former president Bill Cinton in a joint message on tsunami relief, Mar. 18, 2005)
Incorrect usages: Gibson denies ‘Passion’ is anti-Semitic
Joint Video Message of Former US Presidents George Bush and Bill Clinton at the Tsunami Meeting
George W. Bush’s Radio Address (Sept. 3, 2005)
instead, use: enormousness, magnitude, breadth, greatness, sheer size, vastness, immensity
Note: When using enormity correctly, do not modify it with great. Enormity means “great evil” or an “act of great evil,” so great would be redundant.
UPDATE | February 14, 2009
Since that last entry, controversy has erupted over the correct usage of enormity. To the illustrious ranks of George Bush (both of them) and Bill Clinton, add Barack Obama, who echoed Clinton in referring to “the enormity of the task that lies ahead.” While Webster’s, Random House, Oxford and even American Heritage acknowledge only the traditional definition of “great evil” (and, in fact, include special notes to emphasize the word does not mean “great size”), several authorities have since pointed out that the word enormity once encompassed both definitions.
All fine and good, but you would be unwise to use gay in the sense of “happy, carefree,” even though that was its primary definition until deep into the 20th century. In addition, we at Lexicide oppose the shift in enormity because, while there are a number of suitable synonyms for “large size,” there are none for “great evil.”
Alas, we are, again, in the minority. In a Chicago Tribune survey after Obama’s utterance, more than 80% of respondents said they were fine with enormity however it’s used, with one comment reading, “Obama’s the decider. If he says enormity means enormous, it’s good by me.”
If that’s the case, then save a “Safire 2012” bumper sticker for me.
— Otto E. Mezzo