Longing for the Return of the “Ness Monster”

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.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

15 thoughts on “Longing for the Return of the “Ness Monster””

  1. Some words lose negative meanings — notoriety seems to be another in progress. Others go from neutral to negative. But why? Surely, the Language Loggers can help us out on this.

  2. Enormity, some people insist, is improperly used to denote large size. They insist on enormousness for this meaning, and would limit enormity to the meaning “great wickedness.” Those who urge such a limitation may not recognize the subtlety with which enormity is actually used. It regularly denotes a considerable departure from the expected or normal . When used to denote large size, either literal or figurative, it usually suggests something so large as to seem overwhelming and may even be used to suggest both great size and deviation from morality . It can also emphasize the momentousness of what has happened or of its consequences .

    Merriam-Webster – http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/enormit

  3. Adding to Jay Livingston's point, another word that has lost it's negative meaning is "sophistication". In it's original form it meant a pretence of worldly wisdom whereas now it is understood as to actually have such wisdom.

    I must confess to not being aware of "enormity" having a negative or evil bias. Language like all cultural norms, evolves and I don't think there is anything that can be done to stop it. But it is fun to talk about and trace that evolution.

  4. On the alleged inferiority and backwardness of the Saxon ~ness vs the Latinate ~ity: stuff and nonsense, or if you prefer, pedantic prescriptivism.

    I refute it thus:

    Thou still unravished bride of quietness

    John Keats, Ode on a Grecian Urn

    In returning and rest shall ye be saved; in quietness and in confidence shall be your strength

    Isaiah 30:15 in KJV, based on Coverdale (in turn possibly drawing on lost manuscripts of Tyndale the master):

    With stilsittinge and rest shal ye be healed, In quyetnesse and hope shal youre strength lie.

  5. I'd like to keep "enormity" for "great wickedness." This is prescriptivism in the service of maintaining a valuable capacity; it's useful to have a single word meaning "great wickedness." But why invent "enormousness" when we already have "greatness" and "magnificence" to go with, e.g., "generosity" or "achievement"?

    As to words that have lost their negative connotations, the list is long, starting with "pride" and "luxury."

  6. As an editor, I'm with Mark on this. When an evolution in the meaning of a word reduces the richness of the language by depriving it of nuance, or increases ambiguity, it should be strenuously resisted. If this be prescriptivism, make the most of it!

  7. I, too agree with Mark that enormity should not lose its connotation of evil acts. As a science writer/editor working for the past number of years in a government agency, my pet peeve has been the transformation by the social science and policy community of "actionable" from "the source of a tort or lawsuit" to mean "something that can be acted upon." Whenever I hear a researcher or policy expert refer to "actionable research" or "actionable recommendations," I always have to remind myself that they are not recommending injuring someone physically or in some other way.

    However, the usage is too embedded in the public policy jargon to wipe out.

  8. Two other words have also been cleansed of bad portents:

    The hedge fund manager gave a *fabulous* explanation of how much money I would make with him, and supported it with an *incredible* economic model

  9. "Discrimination" used to mean judgement based on evidence;

    "Prejudice" used to mean judgement in advance of evidence; and

    "Bigotry" used to mean judgement despite any evidence.

    Nowadays, they are often used interchangeably, to the detriment of discourse.

    We must do what we can to refudiate this deplorable slovenliness. (Slovity?)


  10. This is my second comment in five minutes. I meant to mention "noisome" which many people carelessly use, without qualification or explanation, to mean "noisy." WRONG fellows. Unexplained, it is confusing. "Noisome" also means, "bad smell." How do you like them apples?

  11. Hey, fellows, I´m a conservative prescriptivist too, in the sense of wanting to avoid pure linguistic drift, which hampers communication between the generations of a language community, and unconsidered innovations from cupertinos and the like which bury useful distinctions previously current in the lexicon. My own pet peeve – a lost battle I know – is ¨careen¨ in the entirely duplicative sense of ¨career¨ (used of a fast-moving vehicle), I guess a typo which stuck. The change loses the lovely, if not particularly useful in daily life, meaning of ¨to beach and lay on its side a wooden-hulled ship for the purpose of scraping off barnacles and seaweed¨.

    But that does not justify complaining about a usage (the ~ness ending) employed for five centuries by some of the greatest writers in the English language.

  12. Bob Wolfson: You remind me of one I heard for the first time last year in Washington among political types:

    "I will briefly outline my proposal now, but will lay it out more fulsomely at the Congressional hearing".

    I thought it was a slip of the tongue, until a week later I was asked to "provide a fulsome description of the President's stance on needle exchange" Should I have responded "What possible description could someone at my level give that would be of interest to someone of your obvious importance, grace, charm and genius…."

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