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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

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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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