Make Your Editor Cry: Enormity vs. Humanity

Make Your Editor Cry: Enormity vs. Humanity

“Oh it’s… [unintelligible] its flames… Crashing, oh! Four- or five-hundred feet into the sky and it… it’s a terrific crash, ladies and gentlemen. It’s smoke, and it’s in flames now; and the frame is crashing to the ground, not quite to the mooring mast. Oh, the humanity! And all the passengers screaming around here. I told you; it – I can’t even talk to people, their friends are on there!” —Herbert “Herb” Morrison, May 6, 1937 live broadcast

“Oh, the humanity!” Herbert “Herb” Morrison (May 14, 1905 – January 10, 1989) was an American radio journalist best known for his dramatic report of the Hindenburg disaster, a catastrophic aircraft fire that destroyed the LZ-129 Hindenburg zeppelin killing 36 people. Over the airwaves, Herb spoke the famous phrase “Oh, the humanity!”

The word humanity means that you are compassionate, sympathetic, or display generous behavior or posses a generous disposition. It is the quality or state of being humane. So you can see Herb probably misspoke in the heat of that overwhelming moment.

What he most probably meant to say was, “Oh, the enormity!”

While having acquired a few incorrect meanings over the years, the word enormity primarily and most often means an outrageous, improper, vicious, or immoral act or it means the quality or state of being monstrous, or outrageous—especially a great wickedness or an extreme evil. The root is the same root as the word enemy. Synonyms for enormity include atrociousness, atrocity, badness, depravedness, depravity, diabolicalness, evilness, heinousness, hideousness, monstrosity, sinfulness, vileness, and wickedness.

“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” —Inigo Montoya, The Princess Bride.

In the last century or so, however, in common usage in the English language, the word enormity has come to also mean EITHER enormousness, huge, gigantic, large, etc. OR a quality of momentous importance or impact. Using it in these latter senses, while debatable, is now acceptable because of recent connotations, though considered incorrect by folks who know the original meaning of the word. But it is a hot button for a debate. The Oxford English Dictionary marks the “enormousness” meaning as obsolete and says, “Recent examples might perh. be found, but the use is now regarded as incorrect.” Modern Webster makes no such concession except that of the four definitions listed for the word, the first two definitions fall in line with the original definition, and the latter two are the “enormous” and “momentous” definitions respectively.

Sticklers are going to insist that you only ever use enormity to describe something monstrous, like the Hindenburg disaster, or something wicked or evil like a successful terrorist attack. For something huge, gigantic, large, etc. the more correct word would probably be something along the lines of enormousness. For something with a quality of momentous importance or impact, the more correct word would probably be something along the lines of importance.

If you want to dodge the debate, instead of enormity, try any of the synonyms like atrociousness, atrocity, badness, depravedness, depravity, diabolicalness, evilness, heinousness, hideousness, monstrosity, sinfulness, vileness, or wickedness.

But don’t say “Oh, the humanity!” to describe something monstrous or something enormous. That one’s been taken already.

Correct examples:

For whatever we may say to cheer ourselves up in the face of the enormities of state power, in fact we have more disagreement (about our relation to power, about what we mean by freedom), less commonality of principle and interest, than is generally admitted.—Susan Sontag, When Writers Talk Among Themselves
...the enormity of the crimes committed during the Third Reich—G. A. Craig
We had to prove crimes of enormity, malignancy, and calculation that were unbelievable. —Military Law Review Journal vol 149, Summer 1995 on the Nuremberg Trails and Nazi war crimes
I never dreamed of any enormity greater than I have committed.

Technically incorrect and also rather funny:

"Let me close by saying that I do not underestimate the enormity of the task that lies ahead." — Barrack H. Obama
"The enormity of His [Obama's] Heart..." — Joe Biden (quoted in Forbes)
Consider the enormity of the cosmos.—Carl Sagan

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