Saturday, September 17, 2005

The sheer enormousness

The same NY Times article containing a use of 'as such' that prompted comment from Mark Lieberman at Language Log this morning contains another noteworthy linguistic innovation, this time morphological, that caught my eye. Paragraph 8 begins:

"The problems clearly stem largely from the sheer enormousness of the disaster."

Here, the adjective enormous has been nominalized, but not with its normal nominalizing derivational affix, -ity. Rather, the all-purpose default -ness has been pressed into service. To my eye, it's a classic example of overgeneralization, of the Daddy goed! type, only with derivational morphology. Evidence, methinks, of the productivity of derivation and of its paradigmatic, Elsewhere-Principle nature, and remarkable because of its occurence the the NY Times -- neither the writers nor the editors noticed that the standard 'enormity' might have been called for, in a prescriptive sense.

In a Google fight between 'enormity' and 'enormousness', 'enormity' is the overwhelming victor at 1,920,000 to 28,600 gH, so this regularization is still in its infancy; I wonder if it'll ever catch on. I found this particular case especially interesting because the nominal 'enormousness' is contained within a phrase that I recognize as a collocation, which I guess I'll have to gloss "sheer enorm-NOM", normally "sheer enormity", but in this case, of course, "sheer enormousness". The phrase "sheer enormity" gets 43,000 gH (more even than 'enormousness' by itself), while other, less codified modifiers of 'enormity' are much less common: "great enormity" at 437 gH, "extreme enormity" at 57 gH, "remarkable enormity" at 77. 'Sheer enormousness' does pretty well, considering, at 290 gH. Indeed, the gH ratio of "sheer enormity":"enormity" = 0.02, and the ratio of "sheer enormousness":"enormousness" = 0.01, not too dissimilar.

Given Mark's 'as such' observations together with the use of 'enormousness', seems like these NY Times authors, Jennifer Steinhauer and Eric Lipton, are on the forefront of linguistic innovation.

Update: Chris and q_pheever have brought it to my rather astonished attention that in point of fact, 'enormity' at some point fell into prescriptive disfavor as a simple nominalization of 'enormous', and 'enormousness' was recommended as the appropriate form. See the usage notes from the AHD that Chris has posted in the comments.

9 Comments:

Blogger Chris W said...

"Enormity" for "extreme size" is frequently critizised. It might have been the copyeditor's intervention. AHD4 says:

USAGE NOTE Enormity is frequently used to refer simply to the property of being great in size or extent, but many 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. Fifty-nine percent of the Usage Panel rejects the use of enormity as a synonym for immensity in the sentence At that point the engineers sat down to design an entirely new viaduct, apparently undaunted by the enormity of their task. This distinction between enormity and enormousness has not always existed historically, but nowadays many observe it. Writers who ignore the distinction, as in the enormity of the President's election victory or the enormity of her inheritance, may find that their words have cast unintended aspersions or evoked unexpected laughter.

10:10 AM  
Blogger Q. Pheevr said...

Chris beat me to it. The OED says of the relevant sense of enormity ('excess in magnitude; hugeness, vastness') that it is obsolete (!), and adds that "recent examples might perh. be found, but the use is now regarded as incorrect."

Perh., schmerh., say I; recent examples are all over the place. I wonder whether the brief obsolescence of this sense of the word was entirely natural, or whether it was given a sharp push by the prescriptivists.

12:41 PM  
Blogger hh said...

Wow! This is a piece of prescriptive advice that has completely bypassed me -- enough so that 'enormousness' seemed like a nonce form to my ear. Amazing... Thanks for the clarification!

4:09 PM  
Blogger Shreyas said...

I'm surprised by that prescription, too; in my community, I only hear forms like "enormousness" used consciously for comic effect.

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