decimating DECIMATE

RonButters at AOL.COM RonButters at AOL.COM
Thu Jan 3 17:00:10 UTC 2008

I agree that most of the arguments about DECIMATE are ignorant and peevish, 
but I don't think it is entirely a matter of "the etymological fallacy." At 
least as important is the relative transparency of "DECI" (as in "decimal," 
etc.), which has a sort of independent morphosemantic existence that allows 
(causes?) folks to associate the word with the meaning 'ten'. People who have studied 
Latin and the Romance languages--educated people who are the most likely to 
concern themselves with prescriptivist regulations--will be especially 
susceptible to the association, but that does not make it any less of a linguistic 

Indeed, I have to confess that, when I read the following sentence this 
morning, my first inclination was to giggle a bit at the apparent morphosemantic 

The Mississippi coast has been decimated by hurricanes twice in 36 years. ... 
due to its storm-prone location. [Rob Young, "Coastal Buyout Applause," 
Orlando Sentinel, 12-3-07, pA19]

Why didn't the author (of this intelligent, well-written article) write 
instead "ravished" or "largely destroyed"? Apparently, "deci-" doesn't signal 'ten' 
to HIM, but in the immediate context of the other numbers, it serves as an 
unintentional in-your-face usage to the peevish. (Maybe it wasn't 
unintentional--he also says "due to" and not "owing to", thus violating another 
prescdriptivist maxim.) Should the author of an impressive article in a more-or-less major 
city newspaper NOT be aware that in this context "decimate" will bring forth 
smug irritation in many linguistically insecure people with a vague memory of 
Latin instruction (and who always did well in freshman English)?

Who is more peevish, the prescriptivist who scorns those who do not recognize 
a synchronic morphosemantic connection between "decimal" and "decimate" or 
the smug linguist who scorns those for whom the connection is linguistically 
robust and indeed imperative? Whose sociolinguistic perch is more privileged?

In a message dated 1/2/08 10:32:31 PM, chris at LASCRIBE.NET writes:

> Laurence Horn wrote:
> > My favorite comment is the one below, on "decimate" (topic of a
> > recent thread here).  I'll try to remember to trot it out next time I
> > teach the etymological fallacy

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