Someone on the WELL recently lamented the common “misuse” of the word enormity to mean greatness in size, when it “really” means great wickedness.
I’ve heard that one a thousand times, of course. And the debate that always follows is between those who, on the one hand, say that a word means whatever the majority of people commonly use it to mean and you can’t stop language from changing; and those who, on the other hand, say that an error is still an error even if it’s widely enough used to make it into Merriam-Webster and fastidious writers should want to be careful about preserving these nuances of meaning.
After another go-round of the debate a couple of years ago, though, I took the time to look the word up in the Oxford English Dictionary, and then did a quick Google search to get some context about the authors and works the OED cited. And as a result, I’ve become an advocate of using enormity in just the way my online buddy was deploring. In fact, I feel it would be unfastidious not to. Here’s why:
Going by etymology alone, enormity looks like it should mean simply the state or quality (-ity) of being out of (e-) the norm. And sure enough, if you look up the word in the OED you find that it meant no more than that in some of its earliest known uses, which were in the 1500s. The OED also has citations from as late as 1865 in which the word plainly carries no connotation of moral evil.
Sure, right from the start the word was sometimes used to connote wickedness, especially in religious writing. And it would seem — judging from the citations themselves and from what I could find out about the works they are from — it picked up this connotation from an assumption that anything that is out of the norm is, perforce, wicked.
But it seems not to have occurred to people that the word always had to have a moral connotation, that the word could in fact have no other connotation but that of wickedness, until the Victorian era — a time that, after all, gave us the obsessive-compulsive codification of English grammar (forced into models based on Greek and Latin) and the invention of hundreds of previously unheard-of and yet suddenly inflexible rules of English usage.
Not just grammar, of course. It was a time possessed by a popular mania for turning every aspect of life — meals, clothing, conversation, public speaking, friendship, love, grief — into a test of how well you’d memorized the persnickety details of the appropriate manual of behavior. The Victorians could detect grave deficiencies of character in anyone who merely used the wrong fork, wrote on paper of the wrong dimensions, wore the wrong colors of clothing at the wrong time of day or year or life, or paid one’s visits to one’s neighbors in the wrong order. And someone who lived altogether the wrong sort of life, not just because he or she had gotten confused about the Rules of Decent Society but actually didn’t care about following them at all, was indeed generally regarded as wicked.
Well, screw that thinking. Given that as a writer and editor I long ago decided that I see nothing wrong with split infinitives and sentences that end with prepositions and using leg instead of limb when referring to a person and dozens of other “rules” of English invented by the Victorians; given that I am deeply opposed to the idea that just to be outside the norm is to be wicked; and given that the more I look at it, the more it looks like what is usually presented to us as being the “older” and more correct meaning of the word is actually just a blip in the history of its usage, I have decided that I am fine with using enormity to mean anything that is far outside the norm, whether it is in size or sinfulness or anything else.