A few years ago, I learned that the word "enormity" meant "wickedness" and not (ever!) "bigness"--this according to the official curriculum for a major American standardized test. Upon learning this, I took great pains to entrain my brain into this new (for me) meaning.

The primary definitions of "enormity" are indeed given by various dictionaries as follows:

American Heritage:

  1. The quality of passing all moral bounds; excessive wickedness or outrageousness.
  2. A monstrous offense or evil; an outrage.
  3. Usage Problem Great size; immensity.


noun ▸used to mean the extremely large size of something, although some people consider this to be incorrect

▸the fact that something is morally wrong, or the degree to which it is morally wrong

▸an action that is morally wrong


  1. great wickedness: the enormity of a crime
  2. a monstrous or outrageous act; very wicked crime
  3. enormous size or extent; vastness: in modern use, considered a loose usage by some

The American Heritage dictionary gives this note:

Usage Note: Enormity is frequently used to refer simply to the property of being great in size or extent, but many people would prefer that enormousness (or a synonym such as immensity) be used for this general sense, and that enormity be limited to situations that demand a negative moral judgment, as in Not until the war ended and journalists were able to enter Cambodia did the world really become aware of the enormity of Pol Pot's oppression. A majority of the Usage Panel has rejected the general use of enormity since the 1960s, and although resistance to this usage has lost some of its intensity, it remains strong. In our 1967 survey, 93 percent of the Panel rejected the word's use to refer to physical extent in the example The enormity of Latin America is readily apparent from these maps. In both our 1988 and 2002 surveys, 59 percent of the Panel rejected the use of enormity as a synonym for immensity in the example At that point the engineers sat down to design an entirely new viaduct, apparently undaunted by the enormity of their task. Even if one sides with the dissenting 41 percent and allows for enormity's largeness, it may be best to avoid it in phrases like the enormity of the president's election victory and the enormity of her inheritance, where enormity's sense of monstrousness may give rise to unintended smirks.

...In light of all this, I was very surprised to see "enormity" used the "wrong" way in the July 4, 2016 issue of The New Yorker, a magazine known for being a standard-bearer of stylistic correctness. Its use was like this:

"The director, now as then, is Roland Emmerich, who, like a constant lover, refuses to tame his devotion; and what he loves is enormity. The incoming mother ship, this time, is round and flat and three thousand miles in diameter, as if the aliens' deepest ambition were not to exterminate us but to make paella for everyone on the planet." --Anthony Lane in "Old Enemies"

This use, it would seem, is either deliberately ironic, or embarrassingly ignorant of the nuances of the word. I can't tell which, but, as someone who has caught and collected a nice array of New Yorker faux pas over the years, I lean toward the latter.

What should we conclude? Is The New Yorker guilty of sloppy copyediting, or can we now safely use the word "enormity" with this meaning?

Related: "Enormity" in figurative sense

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    They clearly should have used ginormity instead. Commented Jul 10, 2016 at 11:41
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    I like this question in spirit, although I wouldn't have asked particularly about whether or not the New Yorker was being sloppy. I'm more interested to know the relative frequency among speakers of enormity (qua wickedness) versus enormity (qua largeness). If the latter use is robust enough, I'd feel comfortable using it that way, regardless of which standard the New Yorker or the any other "authority" bears.
    – DyingIsFun
    Commented Jul 26, 2016 at 18:48
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    The word enormity did mean something very wicked and not something large or huge. However it has been used to denote something huge for more than 300 years, and because word can change their meaning, I think it is OK to use it in this way. So I would not correct somebody who uses enormity to denote something huge, but I would not use it myself in this way, mostly because -- as PeterShor mentioned -- there are many other word to use for something very large. See also the discussion on usage of enormity on the site of Merriam-Webster merriam-webster.com/dictionary/enormity
    – user184885
    Commented Jul 28, 2016 at 20:46
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    Spend several years reading New Yorker film reviews by Anthony Lane, and you will have no doubt that he is fully aware of the historical meaning of enormity.
    – Sven Yargs
    Commented Aug 5, 2016 at 6:25
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    For whatever it's worth, according to etymonline.com, the word "enormity" is ultimately derived from the Latin word "enormis", meaning "irregular, huge". Based on my extremely limited understanding of Latin, I think the word probably was originally meant to mean "outside the norms", where the norms might be either moral or physical. Commented Aug 5, 2016 at 17:23

1 Answer 1


I'm a fan of enormity in the sense of wickedness. I fondly remember Patrick O'Brian's Master & Commander:

by immemorial custom a captain changing ship might take his coxswain and boat's crew as well as certain followers; and if he were not very closely watched he might commit enormities in stretching the definition of either class.

However, I am sure I have seen the enormity of his guilt which seems to convey both wickedness and quantity.

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