Mark has written of the tendency in language to make “ness” words such as presumptiousness instead of presumption and vacuousness instead of vacuity. He wants the needless “nesses” dropped, and I am generally sympathetic.
But with one word, I am having the opposite impulse. In the U.K. a few weeks ago, a speaker at a conference spoke of the “enormity of the NHS’ mission of caring for the sick” and the next speaker mentioned the “enormity of scientific literature on addiction”. I was jolted the first time, bracing for a diatribe. The second time I was just confused as to what the speaker was saying. This isn’t just an Old Blighty thing, I was momentarily taken aback to read in a U.S. newspaper column the opening line “This holiday is a time when we should all remember the enormity of Martin Luther King Jr.’s work” (I assume Reverend King would have been taken aback too, as he probably would have learned that enormity means immoral/evil/improper from English translations of the Bible, as I did).
Using “enormity” to mean bigness rather than wickedness is neither technically wrong nor new. The usage is centuries old. But in the above cases and others it carries a significant risk of causing misunderstanding. Googling on the issue I found this illuminating take at Volokh Conspiracy, which includes this helpful advice:
…both the OED and the Random House report that the use [of enormity to mean of enormous size] is regarded as incorrect by at least a considerable number of people; my law students, I think, ought to know this, so that they don’t inadvertently alienate those readers. (If they knowingly alienate them, because they refuse to be bullied by the Language Police, that’s a different matter.) Moreover, even readers who aren’t so picky but who associate “enormity” with something bad might be distracted by the term: If you say “The enormity of his generosity impressed me,” you’ll at least be distracting readers, even if they understand what you mean and don’t deliberately hold your word choice against you. If you write about “the enormity of the task,” you might lead readers to wonder — even if only briefly — which meaning you have in mind. So I would caution people to avoid using “enormity” to simply mean “large size,” though as I said I don’t think I can objectively call this a language error.