Enormity And Enormousness

Responding to my post yesterday in which I’d spoken of “the enormity of what [Chetan] Bhagat has achieved,” reader Mohan writes in:

I have been told numerous times that ‘enormity’ must not be used in the sense of ‘enormousness’, and that it is closer to ‘an outrageous, improper, vicious, or immoral act’. Is this general language Nazism, or is there something to this?

Of course, if you meant it as a subtle hint that Mr Bhagat’s doings were really wicked, I’m completely wrong!

Um, no such hint was intended, and I’m sure Mr Bhagat is not a wicked man. And I stand by my use of ‘enormity’. Merriam-Webster offers us four definitions of the word, of which the last two are:

3: the quality or state of being huge : immensity [the inconceivable enormity of the universe]

4: a quality of momentous importance or impact [the enormity of the decision]

These are definitions that have existed for very long, and, from what I can gather, are far more common in usage than the ‘wicked’ meanings of the word. That said, Eugene Volokh cautions against using ‘enormity’ because people may assume you mean “wicked” when you mean “enormous”. Fair advice.


I’ve written about language snobbery before, so in that context, let me reiterate that language is an evolving thing, and it is dangerous to get stuck to a fixed notion of what words mean, or what kind of usage is acceptable. In a discussion I was part of in an email group in December, a lady protested at the use of ‘decimate’ to mean ‘wipe out a large proportion of’, when, as she explained, the original meaning was ‘kill one in every ten’. The original meanings of words interest me greatly, and they’re useful in quizzes, but when I am actually speaking or writing, I don’t care what a word originally meant. What matters is how the word is used today. And here are accepted definitions of ‘decimate’:

Merriam-Webster—3a to reduce drastically especially in number [cholera decimated the population] b: to cause great destruction or harm to [firebombs decimated the city] [an industry decimated by recession]

WordNet: eliminate, annihilate, extinguish, eradicate, wipe out, decimate, carry off (kill in large numbers); “the plague wiped out an entire population”

There are hazaar words like this, that meant one thing in the 19th century and mean something else today. Which sense would you rather use them in?

(Volokh link via email from Tejaswi.)