DECIMATE (one more time)

RonButters at AOL.COM RonButters at AOL.COM
Sun Jan 6 01:35:56 UTC 2008

As usual, Arnold has given a persuasive and provocative reply. I certainly 
agree with him that, in the case of DECIMATE (and a number of other 
prescriptivist shibboleths), the sociolinguistic history of the presecriptivist dictum has 
created a part of the larger "meaning" of the word for many people, even 
though there are many other speakers of English who, unaware of or in defiance of 
the prescriptivists, occasionally use DECIMATE as a synonym for DESTROY or 

However, in addition to the sociolinguistic dimension, there is also a 
psycholinguistic one, and here I think Arnold oversimplifies. It is useful to ask 
why did people single DECIMATE out for attention? And why does it so readily 
stick in the minds of people as a word that is "misused" in its usual sense? 

It seems to me that there are significant differences between DECIMATE and, 
say, Arnold's series that begin with the TRANS- morpheme:

1. DECIMATE, unlike, say, TRANSFER, is something of a rare, scholarly 
sounding word--a peripheral word at best in most people's vocabulary, and when people 
learn it they do so often with the sense that they are acquiring a new 
vocabulary item--hence, they are more vulnerable to pseudoscholarly arguments about 
its morphological make-up.

2. As I observed, DEC(IM) is, because of its occurrence in DECIMAL, 
well-known to have a Latinate meaning "10" (which people may also have been taught is, 
surprisingly, the origin of DECEMBER). This is a rather narrow, focused, 
specific meaning. Morphosemantic speculation is commonplace among speakers of 
languages, and anyone who puts a mind to parsing DECIMATE will come up with a 
dead-end. On the other hand, if one puts one's mind to TRANS- and learns that it 
means 'across'(a rather broad, non-focused sense), then in general the TRANS- 
words are not so far off the mark as to seem to be a dead end--indeed, for the 
most part they make sense.

It is just too simple to say, as Arnold does, "normally, people learn the 
meanings of lexical items by observing how they're used, not by morphological 
analysis." On the contrary people surely take into account BOTH the syntagmatic 
and the paradigmatic. Remember being told that AWFUL meant 'full of awe' and 
thus should not be used to mean 'bad'? Doesn't the very sound of NIGGARDLY put 
people off? I could go on like THIS for days. The point is not that language 
learners "[wi]ll put up with all sorts of semantic opacity." The point is that 
normal speakers of a language also go to some lengths to tease out 
morphosemantic transparency. That is, after all, where we got TRUTHINESS. And why we have 
so many eggcorns.

In a message dated 1/5/08 11:08:23 AM, zwicky at CSLI.STANFORD.EDU writes:

> 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.)
> arnold
> ------------------------------------------------------------
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