I first became aware of massive as a Britishism about ten years ago, when I interviewed the English tennis player Tim Henman and he used the word roughly every third sentence. The Britishism, I should point out, is not the adjective in the traditional meaning of very big but its use, in the OED’s words, “in weakened senses: far-reaching, very intense, highly influential.” The OED cites the periodical “Sound” in 1984: “Personally, I’m convinced the Immaculate Fools are going to be massive.” Massive Attack (I quote from Wikipedia because I am not conversant with the terminology and because of plural verb for a collective noun makes me weak in the knees) are an English DJ and trip hop duo” that began operations in 1988.

Weakened-massive got on my radar as an NOOB when I read an October 2, 2011, article by David Hiltbrand in the Philadelphia Inquirer. Hiltbrand was interviewing the British actor Damian Lewis, who said of a character he played, “Brody is treated as a war hero but he’s carrying a massive secret.” Then, just two paragraphs later, Hiltbrand himself picks up the word, referring to a “massive cattle call for [the miniseries] Band of Brothers.”

Here’s a relatively early American use: The series [“Survivor: All Stars”] made its debut immediately after the game, and minutes after the first contestant was bounced from paradise, an anonymous gremlin posted a massive ”spoiler” on the entertainment Web site Ain’t It Cool News — a detailed list of upcoming plot twists. (Emily Nussbaum, New York Times, May 9, 2004)

11 thoughts on ““Massive”

  1. American English already has “big” in the metaphorical sense of “influential” (a common pun is to say a group is “big in Japan”, both implying limited domestic success and referring to the Japanese stereotypical diminutive height – the fact both senses have their origins in music seems somehow significant). Given this, can the extension of this sense to “massive” which by your own admission is already used in American English in the literal sense of “very big” really constitute a Britishism?

  2. ‘Massive’ as a noun.

    In the late ‘90s Sacha Baron Cohen launched a character called Ali G who pretended to be part of rap and gangster culture, spoke in a ‘Ja-fake-an’ accent and lived in a real town called Staines. He made many references to The Staines Massive, a gang to which he belonged.
    (The town has, more recently changed its name to ‘Staines upon Thames’, many believe in an effort to dissociate itself from the negative connotations Ali G gave it but this move has attracted ridicule.)

  3. Do you mean to say that Americans don’t usually describe abstract things as massive or huge or gigantic? If they don’t, how do they say these things? I’m having massive problems getting my head around this idea!

  4. I think Americans do use “massive” to describe abstract things. But they’re more likely to use a word like “major”. Back in the 80s the word “mega” enjoyed a brief vogue.

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