Evidence for DECIMATE   ('one in ten')

Arnold M. Zwicky zwicky at CSLI.STANFORD.EDU
Mon Jan 7 19:57:23 UTC 2008

On Jan 7, 2008, at 11:08 AM, Ron Butters wrote:

> I don't really see how we can dismiss the "opinions" that people
> have about
> word meanings as somehow not "real" even if they may seem to be "all
> theoretical."

people have all sorts of opinions about language -- for instance, that
"fuck" derives from Found Under Carnal Knowledge, that it's wrong to
end sentences with prepositions, that women talk a lot more than men,
that "moist" is intrinsically offensive to women, and so on -- and
those opinions are "real", as opinions.  but they aren't necessarily
accurate as factual claims.

so some people have an opinion about the meaning of "decimate", but
there's no evidence to indicate that the word actually has that
meaning; no one seems to *use* the word that way.  meanwhile, there's
tons of evidence, from a great many speakers and writers, in a wide
variety of contexts,  that the word has a 'greatly reduce' sense.

> I certainly agree that is obviously ridiculous to insist that the ONLY
> legitimate meaning for a word is a meaning that occurs only in the
> writings of the
> insisters.

once again: this meaning doesn't occur even there.  it's *mentioned*
there, but not (so far as i know) ever *used* there.

> I am comfortable saying that such an insistence in itself decimates
> the dogma that the prescriptivist reading is the ONLY legitimate one.
> My point is merely that linguists must not dismiss data that clearly
> is
> inside the heads of large numbers of real speakers of the language.
> All the data
> that the prescriptivists (and dictionary makers) generate (and have
> generated
> for over 100 years) clearly indicates that, for a considerable
> number of people,
> DECIMATE has the meaning 'destroy 10%' of something.

no, the evidence indicates that people *believe* it has this meaning.

lots of people believe they never "drop their g's", because only the
velar variant of "-ing" is acceptable.  but almost  invariably these
people turn out to use the alveolar variant on occasion; it's part of
their linguistic system, part of what they know (tacitly) about their
language, even if they believe otherwise.  (yes, i understand that
this case isn't entirely parallel to the "decimate" case; "decimate"
is pretty much in a class by itself.)

> The fact that this
> belief may have come about in ways that a linguist does not approve
> of makes it no
> less linguistically real--assuming that linguistic reality inheres
> in the
> minds of actual users and that linguistis should not rule out of
> consideration the
> meanings that actual speakers of the language assign to words simply
> because
> we do not like their attitudes or sanction the ways in which they have
> constructed their associations.

all the evidence about the meanings that users assign to "decimate"
indicates that a great many people have the 'greatly reduce' sense for
it (and no other), and some others don't use the word at all (though
they hold a belief about what it means).


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