Friday, May 12, 2006

The enormity of justice

I read a law school application personal statement this week with this opening line:
"All my life I have been trying to grasp the enormity of the idea of justice."
I laughed, then showed the essay to a colleague who teaches writing (OK, legal writing, but he's a very erudite fellow), but he had no idea what I was on about and guessed that I must be objecting to "grasp" in connection with an abstraction like justice. Wrong. "Enormity" does not mean "immensity." It means
1. The quality of passing all moral bounds; excessive wickedness or outrageousness. 2. A monstrous offense or evil; an outrage.
Thus, the belief that the idea of justice is an enormity is an attitude highly unbecoming a prospective law student. I am not alone in believing there is an important distinction between great size and great evil: British writer Michael Quinion reports at Worldwide words his shock at hearing a government official refer to the enormity of his own Assembly. (I, on the other hand, would think "enormity" an appropriate word to describe much of my current national government.)

I was distressed, however, to learn that the "enormity/enormousness" distinction is another ship that has pretty much sailed, like the disinterested/uninterested distinction or the quaint belief that "data" is plural. The online American Heritage Dictionary reports that
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.

So 41 percent thought that was ok?
Worse yet, the online Compact Oxford English Dictionary (what can I say? I'm cheap) defines "enormity" thusly:
1 (the enormity of) the extreme seriousness or extent of (something bad). 2 great size or scale: the enormity of Einstein’s intellect. 3 a grave crime or sin.

Einstein's intellect!?
But the more I look for evidence that I am right and 41 percent of the usage panel is wrong, the more likely it seems that the enormity/enormousness distinction is of relatively recent vintage, an artificial rigidity imposed on a language meant to churn and flow. But I'm inclined to agree with Quinion:
It would be good to keep them apart, but enormity is almost certainly condemned to an unpropitious future as a grander (and pithier) version of enormousness. Between 5 and 10 percent of its appearances in the British National Corpus already use it this way. Language evolves, and we mustn’t emulate King Canute, but to lose precision in this way is like watching the waves erode the beach.

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Poll said...
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tekanji said...

I have a differing view on language than you do; to me it grows and changes. Yeah, it's sad when useful distinctions are lost, but that's how it goes.

But, as for the line... well, personally, I read the "enormity" there as implying that there is a problem of conceiving of what justice actually is, especially concerning how to enact justice. I'd also argue that the sentence itself gives further evidence, as it makes quite clear that after a lifelong struggle, the student has yet to grasp the entire scope of the word and its meaning.