This semester, I teach an MA course called Testing Prescriptivism. Part of the requirements for the course, as for earlier courses I taught on the subject, is that students write two blogposts each. Here is the first, by Bram Steijn:
“Truly, the tales and songs fall utterly short of your enormity, oh, Smaug, the stupendous”. What are the odds that the protagonist of The Hobbit trilogy, Bilbo Baggins, was referring to Smaug’s “deviation from the norm” or his “extreme monstrous wickedness” instead of his “enormousness”?
The usage of the word enormity to denote “excess in magnitude” (see OED) has been condemned by quite a few individuals. For all that, people continue to use enormity in the sense of “vast”, just as they continue to use aggravate to denote “annoy” instead of “making something worse or more serious” (Kamm 2015: 166) and decimate as synonymous to “wreaking havoc” in place of its historical meaning “to cull by one ” (Kamm 2015: 215). The meaning of words can shift over time, and halting this process or preventing it from happening is next to impossible. Perhaps the best we can hope for is to try to understand why the shift is occurring.
Searching for enormity in the British National Corpus (BNC), I discovered that the chief manner in which the word is used is in the “enormousness” sense of the word – out of the first fifty entries (displayed in random order), 26 showed enormity to denote enormousness, 12 as wickedness/evilness, and 12 were, in my opinion, ambiguous. Furthermore, enormity collocates most frequently with the words of, the, and task, as in “the enormity of the task”.
I believe that the possible explanation for enormity’s shift in meaning to also include enormousness lies in these ambiguous sentences, the sentences where enormity could potentially mean both enormousness and wickedness, or is simply a healthy conflation of the two different, and according to certain prescriptivists such as Simon Heffer, irreconcilable meanings of the word. For example, “[t]he enormity of this lie was so great that its ripples did in fact spread out one of the lower astral planes as far as…” (HA3 810) and “[s]he hung her head, weighed down by the enormity of it all” (JY5 2925) (examples from the BNC). Was the lie that wicked/evil or so enormous that it caused ripples? Did she feel despondent because she could not cope with the wickedness of the situation or because it was all too much? I would like to propose that in these instances enormity is a happy marriage of the two meanings, and that by stating that enormity should solely be used to denote ‘wickedness’ is to limit the word’s potential.
Moreover, was Bilbo Baggins referring to the fact that Smaug was a superb/cool dragon? After all, wicked is increasingly used in that sense. And how ‘cool’ was Smaug, a fictional, fire-breathing dragon, really? Certain words carry multiple meanings, often without causing any confusion as to the meaning of that given word when looked at it in context of the whole utterance. As Oliver Kamm remarks in Accidence Will Happen, enormity “is a useful and concise word that can do duty in several ways, expressing subtle distinctions, which are conveyed by the context” (Kamm 2015: 236). So, when examining Bilbo’s use of enormity in the context in which it was used (see image), I think it is safe to say he was referring to Smaug’s enormousness.
Kamm, Oliver (2015). Accidence Will Happen. The Non-Pedantic Guide to English Usage. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson .
Here’s what I say about it in “Common Errors in English Usage”:
“Originally these two words were synonymous, but “enormity” for a time got whittled down to meaning something monstrous or outrageous. That meaning has largely vanished from contemporary usage, with the two words both meaning “hugeness.” But some of us wish you wouldn’t refer to the “enormity” of the Palace of Versailles unless you wish to express horror at this embodiment of Louis XIV’s ego.”
I don’t think harrumphing or passively observing are the only two alternatives. It’s useful for writers and speakers to know that some people disapprove. You don’t have to endorse such disapproval, but it’s useful to pont it out.
I wrote a post on this a few years back, and I found that in COCA, the results were even more skewed in favor of the “enormousness” sense. It outnumbered the prescribed “monstrous wickedness” sense by about three to one.