decimating DECIMATE

Jonathan Lighter wuxxmupp2000 at YAHOO.COM
Thu Jan 3 23:25:59 UTC 2008

That explains why every time I use "decimate," I feel guilty.


RonButters at AOL.COM wrote:
  ---------------------- Information from the mail header -----------------------
Sender: American Dialect Society
Poster: RonButters at AOL.COM
Subject: decimating DECIMATE

I agree that most of the arguments about DECIMATE are ignorant and peevish,=20
but I don't think it is entirely a matter of "the etymological fallacy." At=20
least as important is the relative transparency of "DECI" (as in "decimal,"=20
etc.), which has a sort of independent morphosemantic existence that allows=20
(causes?) folks to associate the word with the meaning 'ten'. People who hav=
e studied=20
Latin and the Romance languages--educated people who are the most likely to=20
concern themselves with prescriptivist regulations--will be especially=20
susceptible to the association, but that does not make it any less of a ling=

Indeed, I have to confess that, when I read the following sentence this=20
morning, my first inclination was to giggle a bit at the apparent morphosema=

The Mississippi coast has been decimated by hurricanes twice in 36 years. ..=
due to its storm-prone location. [Rob Young, "Coastal Buyout Applause,"=20
Orlando Sentinel, 12-3-07, pA19]

Why didn't the author (of this intelligent, well-written article) write=20
instead "ravished" or "largely destroyed"? Apparently, "deci-" doesn't signa=
l 'ten'=20
to HIM, but in the immediate context of the other numbers, it serves as an=20
unintentional in-your-face usage to the peevish. (Maybe it wasn't=20
unintentional--he also says "due to" and not "owing to", thus violating anot=
prescdriptivist maxim.) Should the author of an impressive article in a more=
-or-less major=20
city newspaper NOT be aware that in this context "decimate" will bring forth=
smug irritation in many linguistically insecure people with a vague memory o=
Latin instruction (and who always did well in freshman English)?

Who is more peevish, the prescriptivist who scorns those who do not recogniz=
a synchronic morphosemantic connection between "decimal" and "decimate" or=20
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).=A0 I'll try to remember to trot it out next time I
> > teach the etymological fallacy

See AOL's top rated recipes=20

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