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Americans have no direct equivalent of our British Queen’s English, the perceived standard of correctness in writing and speaking, though it has been pointed out that even the Queen doesn’t speak the Queen’s English any more, her language having been overtaken by generational changes in vocabulary and pronunciation.

The closest equivalent in the US is the usage of highly educated people such as Barack Obama. So it was a shock for some people to hear one word elbow its way out of his victory speech in Grant Park, Chicago, late on election day on 4 November 2008: “I know you didn’t do this just to win an election and I know you didn’t do it for me. You did it because you understand the enormity of the task that lies ahead.”

Did he use the wrong word? Many style guides say firmly that he could only have employed it for something monstrously wicked, an implication that even the staunchest Republican could not have taken from it. He just meant that rebuilding America was going to be a big job, monstrous figuratively but not in its moral dimension.

Style guides suggest that, when great size or extent is meant, the rather clunky and not especially common enormousness would be better. It and enormity both come from the Latin root enormis, which is a compound of e, out, plus norma, a carpenter’s set square or pattern (it’s also the origin of normal). So something described as enormis might in a literal sense be out of true or misshapen, though its usual meaning in Latin was a transgression or deviation from legal or moral rectitude. The word came over into English via French as enorm and only later split into the two nouns enormity and enormousness.

Both began life with much the same meaning as enorm, and for a while both were used in the same sense, for something that was unusual or strikingly irregular, so out of the ordinary it was monstrous or outrageous. Both took on the idea of great physical size only around the end of the eighteenth century. That this was incorrect usage in the case of enormity began to be asserted by commentators only at the end of the nineteenth century. An early example is in the Oxford English Dictionary’s entry for enormity, dated 1893, in which Henry Bradley, editor of the letter E, wrote that its sense of hugeness or vastness “is now regarded as incorrect”.

That’s still true, and good writers find another word when they want to say that a thing is merely physically big; a phrase such as “the enormity of the pyramids” is widely thought wrong. But a more subtle link to great size often appears, which critics mistake for a literal reference. Writers find it to be the right word for matters that are conceptually huge or figuratively enormous, especially something that’s overwhelming in its immensity or its implications.

So can we use enormity as Obama did? Yes, we can.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.

Page created 11 Dec 1999; Last updated 08 Nov 2008