« My Year in Books 2007 | Main | A little help, here »

Very well, I shall only decimate them

When I was one-and-twenty, I probably would have found the Lake Superior State University Banished Words List wonderful. Well, certainly when I was seventeen. I would have crowed triumphantly over the banishing of Let’s do lunch and infotainment, not to mention like I said and basically. I was a stickler.

No longer. My reaction to the discovery that they have banished give back and under the bus is that they are a bunch of out-of-touch cranks, and my reaction to the banishment of decimate to mean exactly what it has been used to mean for more than a hundred years is contempt. Ben Zimmer over at the OUPBlog details the fact that nobody uses decimate to mean reduce by one-tenth, and (other than to discuss ancient Roman slaughter and to bestickle) nobody has used it that way since Hector was a pup.

I love sticklers. But I’m happier now.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

Comments

I just want to get rid of frequently used (and misused) business jargon. What say we run that one up the flagpole and see if anyone salutes?


Can I call a moratorium on calling moratoriums on language usage? Vowels shift, people, and American (as a language distinct from English), as my friend John disdainfully pointed out, is a bastard child (I pointed out that English was also a bastard child, and he somewhat sheepishly acknowledged that point). I mean, the fact that I'm not typing in Frisian is proof that languages change, and English changes faster than most.

I'm probably on a soap box about this for no relevant reason, so I'm going to stop now.

peace
Matt


language is dead

everybody limbo!


Languages change, yes, but that's no reason to cheer the fact that people forget or never learn the histories of the words they use. That's why use of "decimate" to mean "damage severely," or whatever else it is employed to signify, bothers me.

A similar problem, though not one derived from Latin etymologies, occurs in the use of "ground zero" as a synonym for "square one," or "the place where one must start." I don't know of any campaign against this repurposing of "ground zero," or indeed of any acknowledgment of it by any self-appointed defenders of linguistic precision. But I hear it frequently, and it bothers me.

I generally agree with George Orwell that imprecision and vagueness in language aids despots and liars. Not that Our Only President (forgive the non sequitur, of course) would ever let such a bookish word as decimate pass his lips, but would he put the shiftiness of its meaning to good use?


Okay, hapa, here I am in limbo.

hapa? Hey, where is everybody?

Aw, dang.

peace
Matt


Anyway, you're quite right, Chris, that there's no reason to cheer the manipulation of language for propagandic purposes, nor the ignorance of the masses that allows such tactics. On an individual level, I'm quite happy to be a pedantic precisionist. I will frequently and to the great irritation of my victim point out that decimate technically doesn't mean eradicate, and I cheerfully will walk them through the usage of the root and its relationship with the metric system. I have historically alienated myself to quite a number of otherwise pleasant people this way.

On the other hand, I don't feel like snarky lists on the Lake Superior State University accomplish much except to appeal to people who went to Lake Superior in the first place because, after all, they're superior, n'est-ce pas?

So, you know. Fuck 'em.

Literally. They'll lighten up in no time.

No, no, I mean their color will be lighter, following the accustomed period of facial flushing.

peace
Matt


I'll agree that it is interesting to know that decimate derives from the Roman term for killing (only) one out of ten combat-age men, but that's not how the word is used in the English language, it's not how the word has ever been commonly used in the English language, and it's not how people expect the word to be used outside of a classics seminar. It's simply not true.

I'll give you ground zero, although I personally have never noticed it used for square one; using it that way could come only from a fundamental misunderstanding of the idiom. Like using begging the question for evokes the question. But that's not what the LSSU people are on about—people aren't using thrown under the bus to mean anything it shouldn't, they're just overusing it to the taste of some people who have narrow tastes. And the generality of this thing is people with narrow tastes insisting that other people shouldn't use restrictive which or sentence-modifying hopefully or a vulgar word like pregnant.

Furthermore, if the LSSU list was intended to be a criticism of the powerful and their ... imprecise use of language, I'd give them a break. But no representative of Our Only President is going to mislead people by using decimate to mean nearly eradicate. If anything, it would be the other way around, with someone eventually claiming that they weren't lying when they said that the insurgent force was decimated, because we'd reduced it to nine-tenths of its former strength. Which would undoubtedly be a lie as well. This administration, nor any, needs this sort of clouding language to lie, as scrutiny of the transcripts will show.

Thanks,
-V.


Zimmer's account of the history of "decimate" in English is a bit oversimplified, and it incorrectly presents the slippage of the word's meaning as taking place earlier than the OED's history of the word indicates.

The full account in OED indicates that "decimate" also derives from the medieval Latin "decimatus," meaning the area from which a tithe would be collected, and it was used to describe the taking of a tithe (in the strict sense of taking 1/10th) alongside the military meaning during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

The OED shows that the meaning of decimate broadens in two ways. On the one hand, the meaning broadens to the removal of one tenth of any group, not just to the execution of 1 in 10 mutinous soldiers, as it was in Roman usage. On the other hand, the meaning broadens to the destruction of a large proportion of anything. The OED lists these meanings as 4a and 4b, respectively, so it groups the sentences showing the history of these two uses together. The 1663 example referenced by Zimmer shows the word being used in the 4a sense, I think: "The . . . Lord . . sometimes decimates a multitude of offenders, and discovers in the personal suffering of a few what all deserve." The earliest examples of the 4b sense are from the 19th century, the period from which Zimmer cites early complaints about the misuse of the word. The problem with identifying this change in meaning, of course, is that one is frequently unable to tell, even from context, in which sense "decimate" is being used. Anyway.

I agree that the LSSU thing is mostly about people with narrow tastes who want either to demonstrate their superiority or to force their tastes on others, but I wouldn't pick the banishment of "decimate" as the stick to beat them with. It's actually the one word they have chosen where there is a genuine problem of meaning involved, as Zimmer notes when he considers the possibility that it is a "skunked" word (I think it is -- I would not use it if I wanted to be sure of being correctly understood, so to my mind it has been rendered practically useless). If one wants to demonstrate the contemptibility of the LSSU attitudes, their picks of "waterboarding," "organic," and "sweet" as words to banish are more representative and egregious examples of their criteria and attitudes.


I note briefly that in an episode of the new Doctor Who series, much is made of a villain decimating a large group of defenseless people in the sense of killing one in ten of them. I wonder (but am too busy/lazy to research) if the homeland of the language hews more closely to the original meaning of the word.


Comments are closed for this entry. Usually if I close comments for an entry it's because that entry gets a disproportionate amount of spam. If you want to contact me about this entry, feel free to send me email.