Word Routes

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.

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Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday January 20th 2009, 1:10 AM
Comment by: Mary Louise (PHOENIX, AZ)
I learned something! Thanks,
Tuesday January 20th 2009, 2:54 AM
Comment by: Kcecelia (San Francisco, CA)
Hmmm. You have written a thought-provoking and sobering article for those of us who were playing fast and loose with the word enormity. At first I agreed with Kathy Schenck that the battle for the old meaning of enormity is indeed over, though I do notice her qualifying "I think" at the end of her declaration. But, upon further reflection, I find that my opinion becomes muddled within the "skunked term" arena. When someone uses nonplussed incorrectly, I do get bogged down in an attempt to decide if the traditional or an alternative meaning was intended, and am removed from the flow of the text as I mentally substitute different phrases for nonplussed and try to guess if the author truly knows the traditional meaning and is using it. Despite my deep love of all iterations of Strunk and White, I do feel that enormity is further down the path from its original meaning of "monstrous wickedness" than nonplussed is from its origins but, if that is the case, why would you be writing about it? I love using enormity in its newer sense of "great size or immensity" as The American Heritage Dcitionary gives in its second definition for the word. But, to my surprise, the folks on the usage panel at the American Heritage are holding the line for the traditional definition of excessive wickedness or outrageousness. 59% of their usage panel rejects the usage of enormity as a synonym for immensity. The editor warns at the end of the Usage Note following the word that, "Writers who ignore the distinction, as in 'the enormity of the Presidents's election victory' or 'the enormity of her inheritance,' may in their words have cast unintended aspersions or evoked unexpected laughter." I will now use enormousness or immensity when I mean of great size. Avoiding both casting unintended aspersions and evoking unintended ridicule are very good things!
Tuesday January 20th 2009, 3:03 AM
Comment by: Kcecelia (San Francisco, CA)
One additional thought: Maybe we should harness the power of President-elect Obama (President-elect for a few more hours!) to help us with determining the post-Boomer or Generation Jones or Gen X defnitions of words. He seems to be on the crest of the wave that is redefining words such as nonplussed or enormity for a younger, less traditional, but still intelligent and educated, crowd. Or, alternatively, we could send him a Strunk and White and a subscription to VT.
Tuesday January 20th 2009, 4:06 AM
Comment by: Robert S.
The 'enormity' of Obama's transgression cannot possibly be absolved by his immediate withdrawal from Iraq, his effective conclusion of the war in Afghanistan, the successful restoration of our economy, and the eventual selection of w White House puppy. He has 'doomed his legacy' to a fate on par with that of George W. Bush's.
Tuesday January 20th 2009, 7:16 AM
Comment by: Marianne W.
Perhaps he used the word prophetically. There is quite a degree of wickedness that we are facing with those in the world that HATE everything about us.
Tuesday January 20th 2009, 9:21 AM
Comment by: JayDoubleYew (Homewood, AL)
Though the previous useage of 'enormity' by sitting presidents may be debatable, the monstrous wickedness that I believe lies at the heart of exactly what we will be sorting through as a nation from the unbelievable greed of our distorted 'free markets' and seemingly ever widening chasm with regard to 'moral rightness', Mr. Obama --at least in this context--seems to be right on target.
Tuesday January 20th 2009, 9:50 AM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
Are we becoming so near-sighted we can't see the forest for the tree? In a pedantic sense, yes, he misused a word. But that will prove to be nothing compared to what is to come.
Tuesday January 20th 2009, 10:02 AM
Comment by: Phil K. (West Vancouver Canada)

Thanks again for a thought provoking column.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the idea that Obama and his several predecessors have had in mind - a task that is extraordinary in size, magnitude or intensity, huge, vast immense - is given as "the only current sense" in which the word "enormous" is used.

This contrasts with "enormity", which is said to refer to something that is diverges from a normal standard or type, or that is abnormal.

Since so many recent presidents have observed that the task facing them was of an extraordinary size, it would appear that a huge presidential task has become the norm.

Apparently, in the West Wing, huge tasks are commonplace these days, and cannot therefore be said to be an enormity.
Tuesday January 20th 2009, 10:55 AM
Comment by: Geoff A. (United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland)
Phil, your excellent point leads to a logical conclusion. If the norm of the presidential task has become enormous, and the task facing Obama is the biggest ever by far (which in fact it is), then Obama is using the word 'enormity' in its etymological sense of 'out of the ordinary' or 'removed from the norm'.

Furthermore, viewing Obama's presidency in the mythical light that has been widely adopted, one could say that his task is so FAR removed from the normal hugeness of presidential tasks that it must derive from some horrendous *wickedness* of abominable proportions - whose source has been identified often enough that I have no need to name it - and therefore justifies his use of 'enormity' to describe the nature of the task in that word's increasingly forgotten meaning.
Tuesday January 20th 2009, 11:53 AM
Comment by: Dan K.
One could also say,given Obama's leaning, that "his task is so [FDR] from the normal".

While I think given the reality of the "wickedness" (although the very use of that word implies a common or foundational moral standard upon which to judge the cause of the present situation) that the use of "enormity" may be valid. I seriously doubt that the Big O had that in mind. I, suspect his intellect is very much that of the average person and not as "high" as is being spun. That he - or his speech-writers - used the term in the sense of "huge" but used it because it sounded more intelligent that "enormousness".

Further, in the context what he's saying - if he did in deed knew what he was saying - was that HIS task - that is the path he's about to take the US on - is monstrously wicked. Perhaps, in this light, he is prophetic.
Tuesday January 20th 2009, 2:56 PM
Comment by: John B. (Summit, NJ)
President Obama should have used the word "humongous" to express the vastness of the task which he and the American people are about to undertake.
Tuesday January 20th 2009, 4:42 PM
Comment by: sue M. (steilacoom, WA)
Perhaps Mr. Obama also shudders when he reflects upon the enormity of the task which he has undertaken.
Wednesday January 21st 2009, 2:13 PM
Comment by: Clarence W.
Having been "outed" as understanding bemused, nonplussed, and enormity in a way different from the traditional, I wanted to conceive of a positive description for these words to counter "skunked". Perhaps, "skinked" since the little lizards can "renew" themselves by regenerating a lost tail, resulting in essentially the same, yet logically different, lizard. Then it occurred to me, haven't these words, with a new meaning and a traditional meaning, just evolved into homographs/homonyms?
Thursday January 22nd 2009, 1:33 PM
Comment by: Betsy (Scottsdale, AZ)
As a scholar, Barack Obama would probably like to learn about his gaffe. "If you don't know that you don't know, you don't know that you don't know."
I suggest emailing a go-between on his website to let him know about his error. The use of enormity instead of enormousness ranks up there with using "drapes" as a noun.
Saturday January 24th 2009, 11:56 AM
Comment by: Alan G. (Newark, NJ)
Just when I was getting used to nucular...Now, I am faced with the enormity of the incoming administration.
Saturday January 24th 2009, 1:01 PM
Comment by: Daniela (Roldan Argentina)
I learned something! Many thanks. And I agree with Kcecelia second thought.He seems determined to redefine many things, even language.
Sunday April 5th 2009, 10:31 AM
Comment by: A. Z.
Learned something!

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