If you’re a regular reader, you might remember me writing about the verb to decimate some time ago. The gist was, to decimate had never been used to mean destroy or reduce by 10% in English, so it was incorrect and unjustified to “correct” people using it to mean to devastate or kill a large proportion of a group of people.
And I still basically stand by that assertion. Basically…
Recently I noticed a couple of examples of people insisting on the 10% meaning of the word. And that stirred up the usual irritation at this misguided pedantry. But it also made me wonder if I’ve been too hard on the pedants.
The pedants tend to see themselves as correcting a common misconception, setting the misguided majority straight with the correct information which the pedants are among the privileged few to enjoy access to.
Now, first of all, don’t get me wrong. I haven’t completely changed my mind, and assert that these pedants don’t actually have the correct information.
The awareness of the mistaken belief that to decimate actually means to reduce by 10% is ever-growing, and is easily spread by the internet. So much so in fact that I wonder if it’s now actually quite a common belief.
The pedants are therefore no longer the outraged minority they once were, not to the same extent at least. Given how widespread the use of to decimate to mean to reduce by 10% is, perhaps it’s time to reconsider exactly how wrong it is?
Language is generally determined by convention after all. If everyone uses a word in a particular way, it effectively becomes the standard usage through strength in numbers.
I still hesitate to go so far as to suggest we accept that to decimate now always and only means to reduce by 10%. This belief is based on a misunderstanding of how language works after all. There aren’t exact one-to-one relationships between languages, so just because decimare exists in Latin doesn’t mean that to decimate has to be its English counterpart, or that English even has to have a single-word translation for it.
And I don’t completely buy into the notion that convention alone dictates meaning. I refuse to accept that literally can be used a simple intensifier for example. Because that usage is based on a misunderstanding of its established meaning, and can be very confusing, if someone assumes another is using it in its original sense, and not as a mere intensifier.
But I suppose I can’t just ignore how many people are assuming the incorrect meaning of to decimate. Maybe we can let them have it, but certainly not as the sole meaning of the word. Maybe it can be allowed into dictionaries as a non-standard meaning alongside its common meaning, with a passive-aggressive note that the usage has come about through a misunderstanding.
And most importantly , no-one can be allowed to “correct” anyone for using the word correctly, under pain of a stern grammar lecture.
One thought on “A Decimating Blow”
I think there’s certainly an argument to be made for a word having a historical meaning and a more common vernacular meaning, in which case both sides are right. See–I decimated the argument;-)
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