Enormity means a crime, sin or monstrous wickedness. It does not mean immensity.That was also my understanding, but one reader (Fletcher) offered the countervailing view, citing the OED -
2) The neutral meaning of enormity is indeed "the large scale or size of something." Example: the enormity of his intellect.I replied with my own dictionary findings -
I think most publishing entities, online or hardcopy, set up style guides for their employees. Sometimes it reflects a preference rather than a strict interpretation of the words.After which Fletcher researched the word even more completely -
Having said that I would, however, disagree with your view of "enormity." I'm not sure what a "neutral meaning" is, but in my dictionaries (and experience), enormity is vileness, heinousness, wickedness, not large size.
My OED is the old compact one from 1971; in that version enormity(1) is abnormality, eccentricity and enormity(2) is deviation from moral rectitude. It's not until enormity(3) that one encounters "hugeness," with a notation that such use "is now regarded as incorrect."
My Random House is also old (1983), but lists the enormity choices in the same order as above.
Perhaps the Economist copy editor and his/her reference books are (like me and my dictionaries) old.
I confess that the OED I used for my initial checks was not the hard copy version, but rather the built-in version on my Apple computer. (I know, but it's so easy to use...) But I did double-check it with my Random House, which is indeed a doorstop hard copy and in fact beats yours all hollow for age -- mine is a 1966. (I bought it used while at university.) It lists the options for "enormity" in the same order that your 1983 version does, but all that means is that in 1966 (and apparently in 1983), the "hugeness" definition was considered by RH editors to be the third most common usage. This is not the same thing as being incorrect, as the Economist style guide states.A tip of the hat to Fletcher's scholarly effort, which was buried in the Comments section of a minor blog entry; I thought it deserved to be frontpaged.
My hard copy OED is the 1993 New Shorter OED. It gives the "hugeness" meaning of enormity as the fourth definition...but the OED does not list its definitions in order of usage, but rather in order of etymological age. "Enormous size; daunting magnitude" is listed as having a late 18th century origin, versus the late 14th/early 15th century origins of the first two defintions and the third (now obsolete) definition.
My OED also has a notation regarding that fourth definition, which differs from yours by a few words and a world of meaning: "Frequently considered erron." Which does not match your OED's much stronger assertion of this meaning as having lost its correctness.
I suspected that the OED editors changed that sentence between the copyright dates of your edition and mine to reflect the changing status of this definition. To verify this, I pulled out my tried and true Merriam Webster Dictionary of English Usage (1989), which I have found to be a broad-minded arbiter of such usage disagreements. Here is what the MW editors have to say:
"The usage experts insist that enormity is improperly used to denote large size and is properly used only to denote wickedness, outrage, or crime. Enormousness is the word recommended for large size. This recommendation from Strunk & White 1979 for enormity is typical: "Use only in the sense 'monstrous wickedness.'" The recommendation is not just simple, it is an oversimplification, as the first definition of enormity in Webster's Second shows:
1. State or quality of exceeding a measure or rule, or of being immoderate, monstrous, or outrageous; as, the enormity of an offense.
This suggests a much wider range of application than just "monstrous wickedness." Let's have a look at some of these applications..."
The MW entry goes on for a full two pages to discuss the varied usages of this word, then states:
"The reasons for stigmatizing the size sense of enormity are not known. It was simply characterized without explanation by Henry Bradley, editor of the E volume of the OED (1893), in these words: 'this use is now regarded as incorrect.' The sense was labeled obsolete or rare in Webster 1909, but the labels were removed in Webster's Second, leaving the sense unstigmatized."
The MW editors then offer commentary from two sources:
"...I think the time has come to abandon the ramparts on 'enormity's' connotation of wickedness." William Safire, New York Times, 8 Mar. 1981
"Conservatives hold that enormity means only 'extreme badness,' never 'enormous size.' We feel that this rule is obsolete and that it is acceptable to use the word in either sense, or in both at once." Reader's Digest, 1983.
"We agree with these two commenters. We have seen that there is no basis for the 'rule' at all. We suggest that you follow the writers rather than the critics: writers use enormity with a richness and subtlety that the critics have failed to take account of. The stigmatized sense is entirely standard and has been for more than a century and a half."
I enjoy the MW editors because they have a healthy disrespect for critics who hold to old standards while new usages pass them by. One of the joys of language is that it constantly shifts and evolves (and sometimes goes backwards, but that's a whole different post). In this instance, I agree with the MW editors: enormity in the sense of size is a maligned but perfectly acceptable usage.