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Jun 6 2013   9:10PM GMT

Enormity vs. immensity, Tesla and The Oatmeal

Ivy Wigmore Ivy Wigmore Profile: Ivy Wigmore

Which is correct?

interrobang Few people fully understand the _______ of Nikola Tesla’s contribution to life as we know it.
a. enormity
b. immensity

Answer: Either — but it’s probably best to stick with b.

Explanation:
Enormity comes from an old French word for irregularity, énormité. Surprisingly, it’s not the same original Latin source as enormous or enormousness — they’re just similar words.  Enormity came to be understood to mean extreme evil; it’s not only big but also bad. That’s the first meaning of the word but has also been used as synonymous with enormousness for centuries, as the Grammarist blog explains. (To make matters even more confusing, enormous also originally meant  extreme evil. Let’s just accept it and go on.)

The main thing to remember is that quite a few people will think you’re an idiot if you use enormity as synonymous with enormousness, so stick with immensity or some other less contentious synonym — unless you’re in the mood for a scrap.

Getting back to Tesla, did you know he invented the alternating-current (AC) electrical system, radar, radio, the Tesla coil transformer, wireless transmission, and fluorescent lighting? He did. Among other things. And yet Tesla died penniless and alone in a New York City hotel room.

The enormity of the injustice done to Nikola Tesla inspired Matthew Inman (@Oatmeal) to create the greatest testimony to Tesla ever written, Why Nikola Tesla was the greatest geek who ever lived. It’s a wonderful tribute, expressed vividly in terms that I am discouraged from using here but that I wholeheartedly agree with.

And then … Inman raised $1,370, 461 through an Indiegogo campaign to buy Tesla’s abandoned laboratory and “build a goddam Tesla museum.”

Ahem. I may have veered off-topic a bit here. So, OK — did you know the Oatmeal also offers grammar cartoons? Seriously, he’s got a whole topic. Go get ‘em. 

twitter bird  Follow me on Twitter @tao_of_grammar

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