In the December Vocabula Now Online: Them's Crying Words

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Sun Dec 16 15:24:36 UTC 2007

At 7:38 AM -0500 12/16/07, The Vocabula Review wrote:
>In the December Issue of Vocabula
><>The Superior Person's Field Guide to
>Deceitful, Deceptive & Downright Dangerous Language
>by Peter Bowler
>decimate, to  v. For the information of journalists and for all
>radio and TV presenters: to "decimate" a group of people or things
>does not mean to kill, destroy, ravage, defeat, or lay waste all or
>most of that group. This all-too-common usage is a classic example
>of the mistake that can be made by learning the meaning of a word
>solely from the context in which it is first encountered, and not
>from the dictionary. To decimate is to kill, destroy, or otherwise
>remove from the scene one in every ten of the members of that group.
>Get it right! <>More ...

I wonder whether Mr. Bowler has children, and if so whether he
strictly forbade them to use any word (starting with "papa") before
learning its meaning from "the dictionary".  I also wonder how he
managed to locate a dictionary (much less "the dictionary") which
will make sure that these children will encounter only the 'remove
one in every ten of' sense of _decimate_ and not, say, 'to destroy or
kill a large part of (a group)' [AHD].  True, the OED brands this use
as "rhetorical"/"loose", but then the 'kill or destroy, remove one in
every ten of' is a "transf." use.  The original (and hence only real)
use is 'to select and put to death one in every ten of (a body of
soldiers guilty of mutiny or other crime'.  Well, that would
certainly make it easy for Mr. Bowler's hypothetical children to
avoid this troublesome verb.


The American Dialect Society -

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