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Use of “Massive”

I am getting tired of hearing MASSIVE every five minutes of my life. Usually it is used to mean extra heavy, sometimes just big, e.g. a massive storm hit the Carolinas, or a massive thought. It is overdone.

In addition, I am used to it meaning really TINY. For example, the electron is a massive object; the photon is a massless object. This comes from the idea (that I was taught) that massive means having mass, which means >0 mass. So the proton and the electron are each massive, both having >0 mass. Yet each is smaller than a microscope can see.

Can anyone shed light on how this word—used so often—has come to mean really big?

  • December 16, 2009
  • Posted by steve3
  • Filed in Usage
  • 4 comments

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Something is massive if it possesses mass. Many things possess mass -- even a litre of air is massive. But of course, there are many things that do not possess mass -- ideas, sounds, and time are not massive.

In the news today, there are stories about a massive recession, a massive data leak, a massive spending bill, a massive fire, and a massive year for Taekwondo stars. None of these things possess mass. There is also a story about a massive 15-foot alligator. Surely the alligator has mass, but I believe they mean "big".

I also see the headline "Microsoft Makes Five Massive Windows 10 Changes". Changes can be many things -- significant or insignificant, laudable or despicable, for instance -- but they can't be massive. Perhaps the headline should be "Microsoft Makes Five Significant, Laudable Windows 10 Changes".

I see a headline about a "massive gold heist". Surely someone will comment that gold has mass. But a gold heist does not. A heist is a robbery, burglary, or holdup. These things do not possess mass.

And then there are the advertisements. A massive freebie bundle of software. A massive year-end sale of nail polish. A massive celebration. A massive year of home building.

And the political statements. Massive budget cuts. Massive contracts. A massive year of ups and downs.

It's silly. Budget cuts can be severe; why not say "severe"? A spending bill can be huge; why not say "huge"? A fire can be devastating; why not say "devastating" -- or better still, "four-alarm" or "five-alarm", if specifics are available?

Using the word "massive" suggests that the writer understands something about the object being described that the rest of us don't know: some aspect of the object that possesses mass. Perhaps an explosion is "massive" because it moves a massive quantity of air and debris.

But an explosion is not massive. An explosion is a violent expansion that transmits energy outward as a shock wave. It may be enormous. It may be destructive. It may be contained or uncontained. But it's not massive, and a writer conveys no useful information -- or impression of secret knowledge -- to say that it is.

There will always be buzzwords -- words that seem for a few years to mean more than they do. I have some hopes that "literally" and "awesome" are dying their natural deaths. But "massive" has crept into popular use among newspeople and professional writers -- not just among politicians, advertisers, and adolescents. I fear that they will inflict the word on us for many years before they realize how silly it sounds.

paul1 April 5, 2016, 8:13pm

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"Massive"

Probably the most over-used word after the word "epic"

sheratan11 February 16, 2010, 9:09pm

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I've heard of protons and neutrons as being massive, i.e. the baryons, but not electrons. The baryons are named because they are the major contributors of weight (GreeK: barys) to regular matter, and as such are massive, having a lot of mass.

bobryuu December 17, 2009, 10:15pm

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It's true that some words are over-used, and massive is – massively so. Naturally, people get sick of hearing it.

Merriam-Webster's "Dictionary of English Usage" has a good entry on the over-use of "massive" and the criticism that has brought on. According to the authors, among the culprits responsible for the popularity of the word is John Foster Dulles, who used the phrase "massive retaliation" in a speech given in 1954. They also cite similar military-related usage in the 1940s from the pages of "Fortune," "Time," and "Newsweek," among others. They point out that the popularity of "massive" has only increased since then, again giving copious citations, including one from Aldous Huxley.

But this usage is not inconsistent with M-W's own definitions of the word: forming or consisting of a large mass; impressively large or ponderous; large, solid, or heavy in structure; large in scope or degree; large in comparison to what is typical; being extensive and severe; imposing in excellence or grandeur. (The word can also mean "having no regular form but not necessarily lacking crystalline structure," as in massive sandstone, but that's a fairly specialized usage, not generally heard.) My 1947 edition of Merriam-Webster has all these senses of the word.

The only definition my old dictionary lacks is "having mass," which is included in the current Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary's definition. Either it was too obscure a sense in 1947 – perhaps limited to physics – or the meaning had not yet evolved. The meaning of "tiny" cited by the Questioner I have not found at all. Yes a sub-atomic particle may be said to be "massive" if it has mass, but this in no way says anything about its size.

douglas.bryant December 17, 2009, 1:40pm

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