Enormity vs. Enormousness:

Once a week, I ask my first-year law students a language puzzle, often focused on legalese but sometimes on broader English usage matters that can arise in legal work. Yesterday's puzzle involved the distinctions between permissive and permissible, between conclusory and conclusive, and between enormity and enormousness. I noticed that none of the student volunteers could answer the enormity question — and when I discussed it later with some other very smart and well-educated people, I saw that they were unaware of the (possible) distinction. I therefore thought it was worth blogging, for the benefit of our similarly very smart and well-educated readers.

Here's the distinction: While enormousness generally means "very great or abnormal size, bulk, degree, etc.; immensity; hugeness," enormity is often used to mean "outrageous or heinous character; atrociousness" and "something outrageous or heinous, as an offense." Therefore (a) "enormity" makes some listeners think of something bad, and (b) some people believe that the use of "enormity" to mean "enormousness" is an error.

As it happens — and I stressed this to my students — "enormity" has long been used to mean "enormousness." The OED attests this back to 1792, and Random House reports that "Enormity has been in frequent and continuous use in the sense "immensity" since the 18th century." I therefore wouldn't say that the use is thus "incorrect" in any objective sense.

Nonetheless, both the OED and the Random House report that the use is regarded as incorrect by at least a considerable number of people; my law students, I think, ought to know this, so that they don't inadvertently alienate those readers. (If they knowingly alienate them, because they refuse to be bullied by the Language Police, that's a different matter.) Moreover, even readers who aren't so picky but who associate "enormity" with something bad might be distracted by the term: If you say "The enormity of his generosity impressed me," you'll at least be distracting readers, even if they understand what you mean and don't deliberately hold your word choice against you. If you write about "the enormity of the task," you might lead readers to wonder -- even if only briefly -- which meaning you have in mind. So I would caution people to avoid using "enormity" to simply mean "large size," though as I said I don't think I can objectively call this a language error.

UPDATE: I should have mentioned two other things. First, I'd probably caution people away from using "enormity" even in the sense of "atrociousness," unless the context is such that even those who read "enormity" as being "immensity" will get your message. "Enormity of his sins" might be fine; "enormity of the task" probably will be confusing. It may be too bad that many intelligent, well-educated readers don't know the word, but that seems to be the reality.

Second, "enormousness" strikes me as pretty clunky; I'd suggest "vastness" or "immensity" or some such instead. I'm not recommending its use -- I'm just cautioning against using "enormity" as a rough synonym for those three words.

Jon Roland (mail) (www):
While we are on the subject of English usage, here is one that bears on constitutional construction:

I am looking for scholarly articles on the common English idiom, especially in the 18th century, of using the same word for an activity and those engaged in it. Some examples include:

Indeed, it appears that in the 18th century almost any word for an activity was commonly also used to refer to those engaged in it. It seems that this should have been thoroughly investigated, but would like cites to such studies.
8.27.2008 4:46pm
Crafty Hunter (www):
The enormity of general illiteracy cannot be overstated.
8.27.2008 4:48pm
Bill Poser (mail) (www):
If someone uses enormity with the meaning of "great or abnormal size" I would consider it incorrect regardless of what the dictionaries say. This is not merely because I consider my own usage to trump the dictionaries. :) Rather, it is because it is likely to mislead the reader and thereby ill serve the author. If one uses enormousness, there is no risk of being misunderstood. If one uses enormity, there is considerable risk of being misunderstood. Except in those special cases in which clarity is not the goal, the choice more likely to be misunderstood is the inferior choice and therefore "incorrect".
8.27.2008 4:56pm
I can't say what the boundaries of actual usage are for "enormity." But I don't recall hearing it in any context except to call attention to infamy: "The enormity of the crime/offense . . . ". That sort of thing.

I'm not sure that I would ever use "enormousness." It doesn't add anything to "hugeness," except syllables.

If one uses enormousness, there is no risk of being misunderstood. If one uses enormity, there is considerable risk of being misunderstood.

I think that's right. Those are the sorts of issues on which I am willing to hold the line in my classes. The word "nonplussed" is a good example. I know that it is commenly used now to mean "unaffected." But that usage makes a simple declarative sentence like "He was nonplussed by the offer" incomprehensible, except through further inquiry.

Same with "bemused," which has morphed to mean "amused." "That information bemused me."--What does this sentence mean these days? Best just to say "bewildered."
8.27.2008 5:07pm
Freddy Hill:
On the other hand if somebody told me that "the enormousness of his generosity impressed me," I would be distracted by the unexpected correctness of the phrase, while Eugene's original would not cause a blip in my consciousness. So for me as the listener it would be less distracting if you were incorrect.
8.27.2008 5:09pm
Martin Whittaker (mail):
What about the difference in the nominating suffixes? "-ity", I've always thought, is the noun-forming suffix used for pure abstractions; "-ness" is the noun-forming suffix for instantiated qualities. "Enormity" is thus the abstract quality that elephants, whales, and Article-III-judge-egos all share. "Enormousness" is what that particular elephant at the zoo has.

I'm pretty confident that I've got the "-ity" function right (cf. the logical/lexical function of "-itas" in Latin, "-ia" in Greek), but I'm less sure about "-ness." Any pro linguists in the audience?
8.27.2008 5:26pm
Enormity speaks of largeness in the abstract as in the enormity of his ego while enormousness is actual, concrete largeness as in the enormousness of his appetite.
8.27.2008 5:27pm
Bill Poser (mail) (www):
I think that the basic rule for choosing between -ity and -ness is that -ity attaches to Latinate stems and -ness attaches to English stems. The differences in connotation probably arise from the fact that Latinate stems are more likely to be abstract. Most stems allow only one or the other.
8.27.2008 5:31pm
I suspect "enormousness" is a back formation arising because most people don't know the correct noun form of the adjective "enormous," which is indeed "enormity," just as "gratuitous" leads to "gratuity" and "duplicitous" leads to "duplicity" and not "duplicitousness," ha ha.

A similar development gave us "utilize" as a back-formation from "utility," which folks did not realize is the noun form of the verb "to use." Further deplorable developments gave us "utilization" instead of "use" and even "utilizationage" gah cough ugh.

I would never use "enormousness," by the way, since it sounds so much like a popular back formation, like "utilize." Makes you sound like a robot. Off hand, I can't think of any well-written sentence in which the word "enormousness" could not be replaced without loss of meaning by "size."
8.27.2008 5:32pm
Gary McGath (www):
Whatever the dictionaries may say, I'd assume that someone using "enormity" is saying that something is seriously bad, unless the context indicates otherwise.
8.27.2008 5:33pm
Brooks Lyman (mail):
Thanks! I ran across "enormity" in a novel recently in the sense of being very large and thought it was a goof on the part of the writer.

We have enough problem these days what with spell checkers approving and schools apparently failing to teach the differnces between such words as "rain" and reign" and "rein".
8.27.2008 5:38pm
TheGoodReverend (mail) (www):
Bill Poser has a nice point, but I think Eugene has the better framing here. When Bill talks about the "enormousness" sense of "enormity" as an "incorrect" usage, he's providing fodder for the black/white, right/wrong dichotomy of those misguided prescriptivists. Correctness here is relative--certainly it's not illegitimate to use "enormity" in that way. The point is well taken that a few in your audience are likely to be upset by the violation of this apocryphal rule of usage, and a few more are likely to be a bit distracted by it. But that doesn't make it wrong in the illegitimate sense to use the word--it just means you might take into consideration whether another word is more apt.
8.27.2008 5:41pm
Sua Tremendita (mail):
The enormity of those who refuse to submit to my enormousness by saluting me as His Tremendousness!
8.27.2008 5:52pm
richard vinet (mail):
"The enormousness of his generosity impressed me," could be re-phrased: "His generosity was enormously impressive" or better still "his generosity was impressively enormous" or "I was impressed by the enormous extent of his generosity."

I cannot think of a single good reason to use such an awkward construction as "enormousness" which appears to exist as proper usage only because the normal noun formation "enormity" is saddled with that negative or evil connotation. thanks r
8.27.2008 5:56pm
Can we agree that 'Humongous' needs to be relegated to The Road Warrior?
8.27.2008 6:06pm
I have never thought of enormity as having a negative connotation. To me, it just means significance or mass, as in "the enormity of the situation" simply indicating that the situation is "huge" in the sense that the stakes are high. That doesn't mean the situation is bad, just that the outcome matters quite a bit. I suppose enormity, in this sense, indicates that there is a possibility of negative consequences, but if anything, it implies the importance of achieving a good result.

In the phrase "enormity of his evil" the negative connotation comes from the word "evil". The word "enormity" just represents size. Besides, does it make sense to say "evil" is "enormous in a bad way"?
8.27.2008 6:12pm
Maybe instead of enormousness, we should use ginormity.
8.27.2008 6:13pm
Arkady: Obviously a back-formation of "ginormous". A perfectly acceptable adjective as one travels farther north.
8.27.2008 6:17pm
Karl Lembke (mail) (www):
"...the distinctions between permissive and permissible..."

Oh, you mean like:
"Only one misspelling permissive is permissible."
8.27.2008 6:37pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
erp: You say, "Enormity speaks of largeness in the abstract as in the enormity of his ego while enormousness is actual, concrete largeness as in the enormousness of his appetite," but what exactly do you mean? Are you making an assertion about how people actually use and understand these words? About what your impression on hearing this words might be? About what the authorities say? About the Platonic ideal of "enormity"?
8.27.2008 6:40pm
Karl Lembke (mail) (www):
Changing to a more serious mode...

Here's the distinction: While enormousness generally means "very great or abnormal size, bulk, degree, etc.; immensity; hugeness," enormity is often used to mean "outrageous or heinous character; atrociousness" and "something outrageous or heinous, as an offense."

This is one of those times when it's nice to look up the etymology of the word. Both "enormous" and "enormity" derive from Latin roots meaning "away from the norm". In the case of "enormous", the word is taken to refer only to size. "Enormity" has tended to refer to moral acceptability, though it is also used to refer to size. In theory, I suppose, "enormity" could refer to some of the odd hair colors I see on Hollywood Boulevard.
8.27.2008 6:45pm
Serenity Now (mail) (www):
On a tangent: Romer v. Evans, Martha Nussbaum, tolmêma and enormity

- "The Stand," Lingua Franca, September/October 1996
8.27.2008 7:59pm
Geoff Nunberg (www):
I did a "Fresh Air" piece on this one back in 2002:

Geoff Nunberg
8.27.2008 8:15pm
Jack (mail) (www):
I would be more impressed by OED and Random House assertions that the use of "enormity" to mean "unusually large" has an 18th century pedigree if I could see the actual usage they are documenting. The OED is usually pretty good about giving examples. I would be willing to bet that most of the time the writer was using the term in the sense of "unnaturally large" which would have a negative connotation in a world where there was still a belief in something called the Natural Order. Since this belief has been eroded (by the theories of evolution and legal positivism among other influences) it is not surprising that "enormity" should lose its evaluative aspect and be confined to simply measurable characteristics.

If my suspicion is correct, you could make a case that the latter use was originally based on a misunderstanding of the writers' intent (i.e. substituting "unusally large" for "unnaturally large"). That would, of course, not imply that it is currently incorrect, but would strengthen the case for avoiding it.

The words "enormous", "monstrous" and "prodigious" all originally had the sense of unnaturalness with only a secondary implication of large magnitude. They have all lost that sense to varying degrees, which is a pity.
8.27.2008 9:50pm
In response to erp / Eugene, I tend to believe that erp was communicating the same message as I had intended to. To wit:

I have clearly been wrong in my prior understanding of the word, according to the OED et al., however since the original post considers not only the dictionary definitions but the received meanings, I think it is worth commenting that throughout my life I have understood enormity to mean (only) a sense of the largeness of scale of something. When I was reading the second sentence of Eugene's post, and before reading the remainder, I contemplated for myself the distinction twixt enormity and enormousness and I too, as apparently erp, decided that enormity was more of an abstract concept whereas enormousness referred to a tangible thing. e.g. the enormity of the problem versus the enormousness of Sid's carbuncle. I had previously been unaware of any negative sense of the word (outrageous/heinous/atrocious) except to the extent that it could suggest a thing so huge as to be untenable, unwise or at least rather risky. All of which, I suppose, serves but to amplify Mr Volokh's point of avoiding the word.
8.27.2008 11:52pm
VC Mostly usage. Plato hasn't channeled me in ages.
8.27.2008 11:53pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
erp: Most dictionaries actually try to report on usage. Do any of them draw the distinction you draw? If they don't, does that diminish your confidence that the distinction indeed tracks actual usage? (After all, most of us aren't very good judges of usage, since we only have our vague memories of a limited set of sources; descriptive lexicographers, one would think, tend to be better at determining actual usage.)
8.28.2008 1:05am
Ted S. (mail) (www):
We are protected by the enormity of your stupidity, for a while

-- Madame Konstantin, to Claude Rains, in Notorious

(I always thought enormity referred to the size of abstractions, while enormousness referred to the size of concrete things. At least, in those rare moments when I thought about the difference in usage between the two.)
8.28.2008 1:10am
Anonymous #000:
I've never ever heard of "enormity," or its relations, being used as an adjective to convey judgement of good or bad; only regarding size. I wonder whether the legal profession's ubiquitous use of "enormity of [negative noun]" has tainted their usage of the word, resulting in a cargo cult phrasing.

I keep thinking of "enormity of the project" in reference to the construction of a skyscraper and marvelling at how appropriate the usage is there and how there's no way to tell whether the enormity is good, bad, or indifferent.
8.28.2008 6:54am
Mark Butler (mail):
Sloppy use degrades the language, so that, as the Original Post suggests, we can no longer use the word with any confidence that the listener/reader will understand what we mean.

But I'd work on conjugating "lie" and "lay" first. "Lay" is misused thousands of times for every misuse of "enormity."
8.28.2008 10:18am
I wonder whether the legal profession's ubiquitous use of "enormity of [negative noun]" has tainted their usage of the word, resulting in a cargo cult phrasing.

Except that above I noted that I'm familiar only with its negative connotation, and IANAL. Perhaps this is a sign that I spend too much time on VC?

I would not use "enormity" to refer to construction of a skyscraper; but I like skyscrapers. Which doesn't make its usage incorrect in your example. Just sounds odd to me.

This is why I find these posts by our Maximo Jefe so interesting.
8.28.2008 10:19am
Eugene Volokh (www):
Anonymous #000: Perhaps the sense of "enormity" as meaning enormous wickedness has become rare. But all the dictionaries I've consulted list it -- and some suggest that the other usage is seen as generally improper -- so it sounds like the lexicographers have heard it, plenty of times. Nor do they mention it as a purely or chiefly legalese usage.
8.28.2008 10:33am
Anonymous #000:
That's interesting, thanks for both of you clarifying the your usage and research; and I guess I have it backwards (so many words get special meaning from phrasal overuse, I tend to assume that sometimes when I don't notice the real difference). This is the sort of thing that itches, even for a non-lawyer like me, so I'm definitely looking into it.

I hope Language Log does a piece on this soon.
8.28.2008 7:37pm