There is no argument from anybody that the English language is ever evolving, changing to fit the needs of those who seek to communicate in this language. New words get created, for better or worse, and that’s all fine and dandy. We can argue until the cows come home whether it’s good or bad that the word “host” goes from being a noun to also being a verb.
What’s more tragic, in my humble opinion, is when a word that used to mean one thing has its meaning change — or lost — over time. The word enormity is one such word.
In the old days, enormity meant something horribly wicked, something devastatingly evil. An enormity was a dreadful, heinous crime or immoral act. People could talk about the enormity of a Hitler or a place like Auschwitz. The enormity of a person, the enormity of a situation — that really meant something.
Unfortunately, these days we often (or usually) see enormity (incorrectly) used as a noun form of the adjective enormous. We see enormity being used (incorrectly) as a synonym of enormousness.
An elephant may have enormousness, but I seriously doubt that an elephant has enormity.
When Hurricane Fran whipped through central North Carolina back in 1996, its enormousness was overwhelming. It was huge. But it was not evil; it did not have the characteristic of enormity.
I remembered a passage from Ayn Rand’s novel, Atlas Shrugged, that uses the word enormity. I did a quick google of enormity so that I could get the exact quote, and it’s interesting what I found. Two separate articles, each discussing Atlas Shrugged, use enormity incorrectly.
One writer says: “It is a piece of work that had to have had an amazing amount of shock value when it was first released (if one could get through the enormity of its size) and has remained a modern classic.” Enormity is being used to describe the size of the novel (yes, it is quite large, but it has enormousness, not enormity).
The other misuse comes from a Cliff Notes excerpt:
Ayn Rand presents Galt as a man of epic proportions. She stated that the goal of her writing was the presentation of an ideal man, and that goal is reached with the figure of John Galt. He is a man of prodigious intellectual gifts — a physicist who brings about a revolution in man’s understanding of energy, a philosopher who defines a rational view of existence, and a statesman who leads a strike that transfigures the social systems of the world. Two characteristics make possible the enormity of his intellectual achievements. One is his unique genius. The other is a trait that men can replicate: his unswerving rationality.
There is certainly an enormousness of achievements of character John Galt, but there is not an enormity.
The quote I was trying to find is in the excerpt below. I had always thought that Rand was referring to the evil inherent in the narrow thinking, the close-mindedness, of the enemy.
Rearden stood motionless, not turning to the crowd, barely hearing the applause. He stood looking at the judges. There was no triumph in his face, no elation, only the still intensity of contemplating the enormity of the smallness of the enemy who was destroying the world. He felt as if, after a journey of years through a landscape of devastation, past the ruins of great factories, the wrecks of powerful engines, the bodies of invincible men, he had come upon the despoiler, expecting to find a giant – and had found a rat eager to scurry for cover at the first sound of a human step. If this is what has beaten us, he thought, the guilt is ours.
I had long thought that Rand was using enormity correctly there, and that she was playing with the words enormity and smallness. However, read the quote below, where (I believe) she’s clearly using enormity as an attribute of size. In this clip, she’s providing the introduction to a book by her fellow Objectivist.
The ineffable monster destroying the world is not an entity but a vacuum, an absence, the emptiness left by the collapse of philosophy. In that lightless emptiness, mindless men rattle frantically, bumping into one another, seeking desperately some way to exist on earth-which they cannot find without the tool they have discarded. This leads to phenomena such as Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia, as Dr. Peikoff demonstrates.
If you do not wish to be a victim of today’s philosophical bankruptcy, I recommend The Ominous Parallels as protection and ammunition. It will protect you from supporting, unwittingly, the ideas that are destroying you and the world. It will bring order into the chaos of today’s events — and show you simultaneously the enormity of the battle and the contemptible smallness of the enemy.
Rand should have used enormousness there.
Words are fun — but words are important. Let’s use them correctly.