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The Enormity Of It All

Ammon Shea recently spent a year of his life reading the OED from start to finish. Over the next few months he will be posting weekly blogs about the insights, gems, and thoughts on language that came from this experience. His book, Reading the OED, has been published by Perigee, so go check it out in your local bookstore. In the post below Ammon responds to the visitors of his website.

When I wrote a book last year I, like many other writers of late, set up a web site. I did not have any specific plans for the site; it just seemed to be one of those things that people told me I needed to have. And so for lack of a sufficient argument against it I purchased a domain name and put up a few pictures with a small amount of text. On the ‘questions’ page I provided my email address and wrote something along the lines of “email me with questions about obscure words, or anything else that tickles your fancy”.

What tickles the fancy of many, apparently, is to write me to point out errors that I made in the book.

I’m not complaining about this slightly embarrassing turn of events – it has been very nice to have a group of freelance copy-editors offering their advice, and they have found some fine errors.

Two different professors have written to point that I unfortunately used the word ‘Aegean’, when perhaps I meant ‘Augean’, in referring to an onerous task. This was rather mortifying, and I’ve deliberately not gone back to look at my original manuscript, so as to preserve the illusion that this was a mistake introduced by the printers, or some other person who worked on it after I was finished.

Someone else wrote, asking me to clarify whether I meant ‘third from the end’ or ‘fourth from the end’ in the definition of the word preantepenultimate. I’m not sure which one I had, but it was the wrong one, and I’m glad to be corrected.

In addition to the corrections there have been a number of other concerned readers who simply thought that I made an incorrect choice of words at some point, and wrote in with suggestions for how I could improve things, should the book ever be reprinted. I don’t know that these suggestions would fall under the subject of ‘helpful’, but it is nice to know that they care.

But the greatest number of letters I’ve received, by far, have been about my seemingly criminal use of the word enormity to mean ‘enormous’. I’ll admit that I did use this word a bit pugnaciously – I was warned about it by editor, copy-editor, sub-editor, and various others, and decided that I wanted to leave it in to see whether people would complain. I had not realized how much peevishness it would arouse.

For some the use of enormity to mean enormous is a sin on an order with composing a sentence such as “Ain’t that irregardless?”, which I find a curious position to take. The word is often cited in usage guides and dictionaries as being fraught with danger, but the warnings are not always consistent.

Fowler’s Modern English Usage cautions that “The two words have drifted so far apart that the use of either in connection with the limited sense of the other is inadvisable.” The Encarta World English Dictionary points out that enormousness has a more neutral meaning when used to refer to size, but is clumsy, so they recommend that you “find an alternative such as immensity or vastness.” It is unsatisfying, especially if one wants to raise a stink about something, to be told to just find a different word.

The American Heritage Dictionary (3rd Edition) says that 59% of their usage panel is against the use of enormity to refer to size, but that is not the most current edition of this dictionary, and I don’t know if the attitudes of the usage panel have changed since then. They do offer up a polite note stating that writers who use enormity “in phrases such as the enormity of her inheritance may find their words an unintended source of amusement.”

Various editions of the OED have taken various positions on the issue. The abridged Oxford Universal Dictionary of 1955 rather briskly says that using enormity to mean large is “An incorrect use.” The current online edition of the OED lists a number of meanings all having to do with abnormality or wickedness, and then gives the third entry as “hugeness, vastness”. Oddly enough, they also list this sense as obsolete, and say “recent examples might perh. be found, but the use is now regarded as incorrect.” This is one of the entries that has not yet been updated in the ongoing 3rd edition, so I would assume that this definition is more or less the same as when it was written in the 19th century.

Merriam-Webster’s 11th Collegiate Dictionary gives the third meaning of enormity as “the quality or state of being huge” and includes what I think is the most balanced and well reasoned usage note – “Enormity, some people insist, is improperly used to denote large size. They insist on enormousness for this meaning, and would limit enormity to the meaning “great wickedness.” Those who urge such a limitation may not recognize the subtlety with which enormity is actually used.” And they proceed to enumerate the many ways in which enormity can and has been used.

So there are some who say that one should use enormousness to mean large and enormity to mean wicked, simply because wicked was the initial (or earlier) meaning. But if I follow this line of reasoning I find I have a problem with using enormousness to mean large, because the original meaning of enormousness was “wickedness; enormity”.

In future I’ll just use enorm.

Recent Comments

  1. mollymooly

    American Heritage 4th edition is as per the third; maybe they didn’t re-poll their panel?

  2. […] The Enormity Of It All (oup.com) […]

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