October 22, 2009

Language Tips: enormity & gave me pause/ idioms

Posted in enormity, idioms at 8:01 am by dlseltzer

Tip 1: Enormity

I recently ran across this sentence, which gave me pause.

Given the enormity of the obesity problem, it is important to apply rigorous research methods to its study to better understand ways to respond to this national epidemic.

(The topic has been changed to protect the author’s identity.)

What gave me pause was not the apparently punny nature of ‘enormity and obesity,’ but the word, enormity, itself, the use of which is completely wrong here.

Contrary to the opinions of some, enormity does not refer merely to great size or enormousness. Enormity is more specific and has a distinctly negative connotation, meaning extremely wicked, tremendously evil, or exceedingly heinous.

One should not overlook the enormity of the genocide in Darfur.

Observers remarked on the enormity of mother’s sin when she hurt her child.

Unfortunately, some folks miss this distinction:

It’s not just the enormity of the mission, it’s the familiarity. General McChrystal doesn’t hide the bitterness in his voice as he describes having to take back Helmand Province all over again.

NY Times, October, 2009

The associate managing editor for standards for the New York Times noted the error and corrected it in his weekly column on style, grammar, and usage, After Deadline.

Even our president is not immune:

“I know you didn’t do this just to win an election and I know you didn’t do it for me. You did it because you understand the enormity of the task that lies ahead.”

Barak Obama, November, 2008

This misuse is widespread—even to the point where a few dictionaries now include ‘great size’ as a less common meaning of enormity; however, that, to me, is a mistake. I would hate to lose the precision of the definition. The problem is that enormousness sounds awkward, and other words that are synonymous with enormousness (e.g., vastness, hugeness) don’t sound right, either. Maybe, immensity—it still doesn’t dance off the tongue. Despite my difficulty identifying a good word to use here, I still would not use enormity to mean enormousness. There are enough people around who still make the distinction that you risk being viewed as incorrect.

The New York Times graciously reported other words that are commonly misused:

Fulsome does not mean full, but disgusting, excessive, or insincere.

Noisome does not mean noisy, but smelly, unhealthful.

Fortuitous does not mean lucky, but happens by chance.

Enervated does not mean energized, but weakened.

As we have discussed before:

Disinterested does not mean uninterested, but unbiased.

Penultimate does not mean the utmost ultimate, but next to last.

Presently does not mean now, but in a little while.

Restive does not mean restless nor does it mean restful, but stubborn.

[Geeky trivia note: A word was coined in the early 90s for these words that look like they mean one thing but really mean another: phantonyms.]

Tip 2: Gave me pause & idioms

When I wrote the first tip, I said that the sentence gave me pause. Later, I thought about it and decided that ‘gave me pause’ was a strange phrase and might be challenging for some. Thus, tip 2.

First, let’s get ‘gave me pause’ out of the way. To ‘give pause’ means ‘to hesitate or stop to think, in surprise or doubt.’

I love the usage example provided at dictionary.com:

These frightening statistics give us pause.

I know exactly how they feel; the frightening statistics give me pause, too.

This kind of phrase is called an idiom. An idiom is a phrase that has a figurative meaning, that is, the meaning is different than the literal definitions of the words that make up the phrase. (It can also mean a style of speaking or language associated with a particular group of people, but that’s not the meaning we are discussing today.)

Those philosophers live in an ivory tower.

The idiom is ‘live in a an ivory tower.’ This doesn’t mean that the philosophers actually live in a tower constructed of ivory or that is ivory in color. It means that they live lives that are disconnected from the everyday realities of life. [NOTE: To any philosophers out there, you know, of course, I don’t mean anything by that. It’s just a silly example meant to teach and amuse. The philosophers I know are very much in touch with reality. Yeah, that’s the ticket.]

Incidentally, ‘that’s the ticket’ is another idiom. We are not talking literally about something being a ticket. It means ’that’s what we need’ or ‘that’s just right.’

If you are interested in understanding more about idioms and what particular idioms mean, there are oodles of web sites devoted to them. Just google ‘idioms,’ and knock yourself out. And that (knock yourself out) is an idiom, too.



  1. Hello! Thank you for the wonderful blog you’re writing – it’s really helpful! Could you discuss the correctness of using “at around” vs “around” when describing time? As an example:

    I left my house around noon.
    I left my house at around noon.

    My style guide (S&W) and grammar (Thomson & Martinet) do not explain this usage, and online sources tend to be contradicting themselves. I feel like the “at around” is either a contradiction (it’s either “at” or “around”), or redundant at best. But people in US use it all the time, which confuses me (as an ESL speaker, who learned British English as a kid).

    Thank you!

    • dlseltzer said,

      This is a great suggestion, and I will address it in the next couple of weeks.

  2. Mike Hall said,

    Thank you for publishing this blog. Please add my e-mail (hallmp@upmc.edu) to your distribution list.

    All the best,

  3. Bryan Hemerka said,

    Will you please add me to the email distribution for this blog? Thanks in advance!

  4. Susan said,


    Thank you so much for this very helpful blog. A breath of fresh air in terms of insight on language. It provides the best explanation I can find on “give pause” idiom. I’m still wondering if I’m using it correctly. Can you use it with “to wonder,” ie “gave me pause to wonder”?
    here is how I use it:
    People have always asked me about my connections. After a while that word, “connections,” gave me pause: where, I wondered, did my connections really come from?

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