A TALE OF TWO DISEASES was the attention-grabbing headline of the featured article received in today’s Mother Jones email newsletter. It addresses the devastating, life-shortening, genetic diseases sickle-cell disease (SCD), also known as sickle-cell anaemia (SCA), and cystic fibrosis. But I ignored the content as my attention was caught by a secondary headline: “We’re in the Process of Decimating 1 in 6 Species on Earth” by Tim McDonnell (April 30, 2015).
With all the haste that I could muster, I punctiliously hurried to my favorite etymology site and began this brief article on the never-ending irritation I feel when seeing or hearing the word in question misused.
And the word? Decimation (from the Latin, decimatus).
It was first used circa 1600 “in reference to the practice of punishing mutinous military units by capital execution of one in every ten (1-in-10). Killing one in ten from a rebellious city or a mutinous army was a common punishment in classical times. The victims were chosen by lots. The word has been used—incorrectly, to the irritation of pedants—since 1660s to mean destroy a large portion of.” (And fastidiously paraphrased from Online Etymology Dictionary.)
Decimation was a pragmatic, yet vicious, attempt to balance the need to punish serious offenses with the practicalities of dealing with a large group of offenders.
Now then, words are used to communicate thoughts. Yes?
Specific thoughts require specific words.
Words often have specific meanings.
But many words have multiple meanings, especially in the English language.
And many of those multiple meanings are based on the ignorance of countless users and the need of the lexicographers to be hip with the times.
So, as I argue with anyone and what often seems like everyone, if a word is allowed two opposing definitions in our modern descriptive dictionaries—as they too often are—then my attempt to communicate an important message to you may come out with results the opposite of my intents and your needs or desires.
For example, if I give my assistant an important manuscript and instruct her to scan it for errors and I am using scan in its original meaning (“to look at something carefully, usually in order to find something”) and she hears scan in the modern definition based on popular misuse (“to look over or read something quickly”), my manuscript may come out disastrously.
As might her career.
Or if I mention to my wife that our rose garden has become a bit unruly and could she decimate it, the results could be tragic if she uses scan in one sense and I another.
Yeah yeah yeah I’ll put my finickiness aside about the misuse of the language in general and get back to the decimation of the language in the MJ article mentioned in the first paragraph above.
The writer could have avoided riling pedant-oriented word-users like myself if he had said what he meant: “One out of every six species could face extinction if global warming continues on its current path.”
HEADER IMAGE: The image at the top of this page was cropped from an etching by William Hogarth for the book Beaver’s Roman Military Punishments, published in 1725. It was used by Wikipedia for their “Decimation (Roman army)” entry: “Decimation was a form of military discipline used by senior commanders in the Roman Army to punish units or large groups guilty of capital offenses such as mutiny or desertion. The procedure was a pragmatic, yet vicious, attempt to balance the need to punish serious offenses with the practicalities of dealing with a large group of offenders.” (Wikipedia)