Exploring the pathways of our lexicon
"Enormity": Monstrous Wickedness?
Barack Obama gives his inaugural address today, but on Sunday he gave a speech that previewed the main event. "Despite the enormity of the task that lies ahead," Obama said, "I stand here today as hopeful as ever that the United States of America will endure, that the dream of our founders will live on in our time." This line echoed his victory speech last November: "I know you didn't do this just to win an election and I know you didn't do it for me. You did it because you understand the enormity of the task that lies ahead." Is Obama misusing enormity, or is he inaugurating a semantic change?
If you live and die by manuals like Strunk and White's The Elements of Style, then you will indeed see this use of enormity as incorrect. Strunk and White advise, "Use only in the sense 'monstrous wickedness.' Misleading, if not wrong, when used to express bigness." Many usage guides suggest enormousness in the place of enormity: Bryan Garner's Modern American Usage says, "The historical differentiation between these words should not be muddled. Enormousness = hugeness, vastness. Enormity = outrageousness, ghastliness."
But the "historical differentiation" isn't really that old or that cut-and-dry. The earliest dictionary entry I've found with an explicit distinction is in William Dwight Whitney's Century Dictionary (1889-1891): "Enormousness is strictly limited to vastness in size; enormity, to vastness in atrocity, baseness, etc." In 1893, Oxford English Dictionary editor Henry Bradley similarly warned against the "immense" meaning of enormity: "the use is now regarded as incorrect."
Even when dictionaries have sought to proscribe the more figurative sense of enormity, they've allowed some wiggle room in their definitions. For instance, Webster's New International Dictionary, Second Edition (1934) defines enormity as:
State or quality of exceeding a measure or rule, or of being immoderate, monstrous, or outrageous; as the enormity of an offense.
That's a lot more nuanced than Strunk and White's "monstrous wickedness." And those qualities of immoderateness, excess, and monstrousness are in fact evoked by Obama's usage, "the enormity of the task that lies ahead." Applying the word enormity to daunting or overwhelming tasks is certainly nothing new. Here are two early examples:
I had set before him the enormity of the task he had undertaken. (Samuel Richardson, Clarissa, 1748)
I shudder when I reflect upon the enormity of the task which I have undertaken. (Duke of Wellington, 1812 letter)
More recently, the "daunting" version of enormity has worked its way into presidential rhetoric. When Ronald Reagan became president in 1981, he said, "I think I have always been well aware of the enormity of it, the difficulties." And in his 1994 State of the Union address, Bill Clinton said, "Our support of reform must combine patience for the enormity of the task and vigilance for our fundamental interests and values."
No less a usage maven than William Safire has given up on imposing the old line on enormity. "I think the time has come to abandon the ramparts on enormity's connotation of wickedness," Safire wrote after the 1981 Reagan interview. He reiterated the surrender after Clinton's 1994 State of the Union, and recently Kathy Schenck of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel agreed: "The enormity battle is over, I think."
Others are not so ready to give up the fight. After the November election a commenter on the New York Times site gravely opined, "People who celebrate Obama's victory on NPR by speaking of its 'enormity' should be investigated by the FBI, one offender 'at a time.'" Another commenter chimed in: "I cringe when enormity is used to mean immensity, such as when President-elect Obama discussed the economy."As the American Heritage Dictionary warns, "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." We've dealt with this type of situation before, in our discussion of nonplussed (another Obama-ism) and bemused. Like those two words, enormity is what Bryan Garner calls a "skunked term," with a historical meaning that confuses those unfamiliar with it and a newer meaning that irks traditionalists, leaving no one happy.
But what happens when a well-spoken and charismatic president comes into office using the supposedly "incorrect" meanings of skunked terms like nonplussed and enormity? Will it spell the end of the old prescriptive distinctions? Is this, as the Boston Globe's Jan Freeman and the Chicago Tribune's Eric Zorn have both suggested, language change we can believe in?
Sound off in the comments below. As always, I trust Visual Thesaurus readers to refrain from monstrous wickedness.