That's What They Say
8:11 am
Sun April 7, 2013

Enormous ambiguity when using 'enormous'

In talking about size, should one use "enormity," or "enormous"? For most of us, these two words used to describe the large scope of a situation seem synonymous. On this edition of "That's What They Say," host Rina Miller discusses with Professor Anne Curzan how these supposed synonyms differ in their meanings.

So if "enormity" and "enormous" are not synonymous, can "enormity" still be used to describe a big problem? According to Curzan, "You can, if you use 'enormity' to describe a problem, and are making some sort of moral judgment about it. It's another thing if you're talking about a topic or a building, and you're talking about size without making a moral judgment."

It comes down to the enormity of the moral implications of a situation, versus the enormousness, or the size or scope of the situation itself. The two words, however, have the same linguistic roots, and both definitions have remained similar throughout history.

"Enormity" and "enormousness," says Curzan, go back to the same root in Latin, meaning "unusual."

"And when both words come into English in about the 16th century, they refer to something outside the ordinary," Curzan explains.

The modern distinction then comes from the current usage of the two words, right?

"I discovered that a lot of the uses of 'enormity' are ambiguous. You'll see people writing or talking about the 'enormity of the suffering,' and I think there people are talking about the scope or size of the suffering, as well as making a negative judgment about it in terms of the fact that it is perhaps morally reprehensible," says Curzan.

Differences between the two words aside, how often are people actually using these words?

"It looks like fewer and fewer people are using 'enormity,'" says Curzan. "But what has taken off since the 1940's and 1950's is 'sheer size' and 'sheer scope.'"

As it turns out, the sheer size of the variations of "enormous" are indeed, enormous.

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