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

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Sun Dec 16 18:21:06 UTC 2007

At 10:12 AM -0800 12/16/07, Jonathan Lighter wrote:
>To continue, since the precise date of Jesus' birth is not known,
>the preferred greeting is actually "Happy [or "Merry"] Approximate
>Date of the Birth of Jesus to you!"  Those who find this usage

...or dare one say stodgily professorial...

>should reconsider their position in the light of reason and
>solicitude for the feelings of others.
>   JL

>"Dennis R. Preston" <preston at MSU.EDU> wrote:
>   ---------------------- Information from the mail header
>Sender: American Dialect Society
>Poster: "Dennis R. Preston"
>Subject: Re: In the December Vocabula Now Online: Them's Crying Words
>Is "Peter Bowler" a bawdy pseudonym? I ask, since years ago I
>suffered badly after being introduced to a real "Randy Cox" and
>reacting as if my leg had been pulled. I don't want to err again.
>>---------------------- Information from the mail header
>>Sender: American Dialect Society
>>Poster: Laurence Horn
>>Subject: Re: In the December Vocabula Now Online: Them's Crying Words
>>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 -
>Dennis R. Preston
>University Distinguished Professor
>Department of English
>15C Morrill Hall
>Michigan State University
>East Lansing, MI 48824
>preston at
>The American Dialect Society -
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>The American Dialect Society -

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