enormity, enormousness
1. Both words are derived from Latin e norma meaning ‘out of the ordinary’, and both originally had meanings associated with wicked and criminal aspects of abnormality. Enormity (15c) is older than enormousness (17c), and its first recorded meanings are ‘a breach of the law, a crime’. Both words have also been used unexceptionably at different times to mean what enormousness now means, ‘very great size’, but by the end of the 19c enormity was confined again to its special meaning, ‘great wickedness’, as in The enormity of the crime shocked everyone, and to its concrete use as in The regime inflicted many enormities on its opponents. This distinction continues to be defended by many advocates of careful usage in most contexts.
2. Because enormousness is such an awkward word, and alternatives such as hugeness and immensity are not much better, enormity is beginning to compete with it again in contexts that have nothing to do with wickedness, depravity, and suchlike, but these uses are likely to attract disapproval:

• ☒ A wide-angle lens captures the enormity of the Barbican Centre, London's new arts complex —Times, 1982

• ☒ The enormity of such open spaces momentarily alarms her —Susan Johnson, AusE 1990

• ☒ He didn't have much time to think about the enormity of what he was taking on —Express, 2007.

3. In the examples that follow, enormity is used correctly according to the criterion given above:

• Hanging would seem quite a lenient sentence considering the enormity of his crime in those harsh old days —R. Long, 1990

• I did not know then that one frequently fails to live up to the enormity of death —Anita Brookner, 1990

• The word arrogance is almost too small to contain the enormity of the offence here —Scotsman, 2007.

There is a practical point to be made, that generalized use of enormity, given its special meaning, can lead to ambiguity in contexts such as We all recognize the enormity of their achievement, when the achievement in question might anyway be open to different interpretations. However, meanings legitimately overlap in sentences such as the following:

• She tried to be a strength for her daughter, but was overwhelmed by the enormity of what was happening to them all —R. Black, 1992.

Modern English usage. 2014.

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • enormity — enormity, enormousness both mean the state or the quality of being enormous but are rarely interchangeable in modern usage. Enormity imputes an abnormal quality; it applies especially to the state of exceeding all bounds in wickedness or evil,… …   New Dictionary of Synonyms

  • enormity — ► NOUN (pl. enormities) 1) (the enormity of) the extreme seriousness or extent of (something bad). 2) great size or scale: the enormity of Einstein s intellect. 3) a grave crime or sin. USAGE Enormity is not related to enormous …   English terms dictionary

  • Enormity — E*nor mi*ty, n.; pl. {Enormities}. [L. enormitas, fr. enormis enormous: cf. F. [ e]normit[ e]. See {Enormous}.] 1. The state or quality of exceeding a measure or rule, or of being immoderate, monstrous, or outrageous. [1913 Webster] The enormity… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • enormity — late 15c., transgression, crime, irregularity, from O.Fr. énormité extravagance, enormity, atrocity, heinous sin, from L. enormitatem (nom. enormitas) hugeness, vastness, irregularity, from enormis (see ENORMOUS (Cf. enormous)). Meaning extreme… …   Etymology dictionary

  • enormity — [n1] horribleness abomination, atrociousness, atrocity, crime, depravity, disgrace, evil, evilness, flagrancy, grossness, heinousness, horror, monstrosity, monstrousness, nefariousness, outrage, outrageousness, rankness, turpitude, vice,… …   New thesaurus

  • enormity — [ē nôr′mə tē, inôr′mə tē] n. pl. enormities [Fr enormité < L enormitas < enormis, irregular, immoderate, immense < e , out + norma, rule: see NORM] 1. great wickedness [the enormity of a crime] 2. a monstrous or outrageous act; very… …   English World dictionary

  • enormity — index degree (magnitude), magnitude, weight (importance) Burton s Legal Thesaurus. William C. Burton. 2006 …   Law dictionary

  • enormity — noun (plural ties) Date: 15th century 1. an outrageous, improper, vicious, or immoral act < the enormities of state power Susan Sontag > < other enormities too juvenile to mention Richard Freedman > 2. the quality or state of being immoderate,… …   New Collegiate Dictionary

  • enormity — /i nawr mi tee/, n., pl. enormities 1. outrageous or heinous character; atrociousness: the enormity of war crimes. 2. something outrageous or heinous, as an offense: The bombing of the defenseless population was an enormity beyond belief. 3.… …   Universalium

  • enormity — [[t]ɪnɔ͟ː(r)mɪti[/t]] enormities 1) N UNCOUNT: usu the N of n If you refer to the enormity of something that you consider to be a problem or difficulty, you are referring to its very great size, extent, or seriousness. I was numbed by the… …   English dictionary

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