the decimation of the language continues

Es­ti­mated reading time is 3 min­utes.

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.”



Hogarth Decimation print 1200

FEATURED 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)


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