decimating DECIMATE

Arnold M. Zwicky zwicky at CSLI.STANFORD.EDU
Sat Jan 5 16:07:52 UTC 2008

On Jan 3, 2008, at 9:00 AM, Ron Butters wrote:

> 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
> reality.

i agree that more is going on here than the etymological falacy, but i
don't think it's merely an appreciation of morphological relations
(especially for those who have studied latin and the romance
languages).  the fact is that even people who appreciate the
morphological composition of lexical items and know the etymology --
many do not -- virtually never insist that these items be semantically
transparent and honor the etymology.  you can recognize that
   transmit transport transfer translate transcend transact ...
share an element "trans-" and recognize that this is originally latin
"trans" 'across', but not care that some of these verbs are used in
circumstances where the semantic component 'across' is obscure at
best.  you can appreciate that "passion" originally meant 'suffering
pain' and is related to "passive" (in several senses) and
"patient" (in several senses), but have no objection to the use of
"passion" for a variety of strong feelings (historically, metaphorical
extensions of "passion" in a number of different directions).

i could go on like this for days.  normally, people learn the meanings
of lexical items by observing how they're used, not by morphological
analysis, and they'll put up with all sorts of semantic opacity.  why
is "decimate" different?  because authorities have been insisting, for
at least 140 years, that this particular item *has to be* semantically
transparent, in such a way as to honor its etymology, and this opinion
has been transmitted as a piece of folk linguistics.  as a result,
people who would have accepted the semantic extension of
"decimate" (resulting in semantic opacity) without a thought have been
repeatedly reminded of the element "decim-" 'ten' in the verb; thanks
to usage advice, they can't help noticing it.  (a further consequence
is  that "decimate" is essentially useless for these people, since
occasions for the meaning 'reduce by one-tenth' are not at all common.)

> 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
> solecism:
> 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]

i agree that the example is peculiar, but my problem with it is not
that "decimate" has been used in the extended sense 'reduce greatly in
number or amount', but that it's being used where no reduction in
number or amount is involved.  "decimated" here looks like
"devastated" 'greatly damaged'.  this is a still further semantic
extension, one i am (not yet) comfortable with.  ("decimated" 'greatly
reduced in number or amount' is a genuinely useful item, since there's
no other one-word expression for this meaning, and it's a meaning we
have many occasions to want to express.)


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