Evidence for DECIMATE ('one in ten')

RonButters at AOL.COM RonButters at AOL.COM
Mon Jan 7 22:38:06 UTC 2008


I don't see any useful way of distinguishing between (1) what people say the 
word DECIMATE means to them and (2) what the word DECIMATE "actually" means to 
them. It is my opinion that the word ORT means 'scrap of food' and that 
HOPEABLY means 'hopefully', but I have never seen them actually used that way 
(except, respectively, in crossword puzzles, where I have also seen DECIMATE 
defined as 'kill every tenth soldier'; and in the writings of Fred Cassidy). I 
totally agree that there is scant (or perhaps worse than scant) evidence of the 
"actual" production in the wild of DECIMATE in the prescriptivist sense, but that 
does not mean that the meanings that such speakers assign to them are any 
less "real" for them. The introspective data is not disconfirmed by the mere 
absence of objective data, any more than vice versa.

None of the wobbly examples that Arnold gives are instances of reported 
MEANINGS, and in general they actually argue AGAINST his view. Opinion about 
"g-dropping" is simply a red-herring: this is a belief about what someone thinks she 
DOES, not what she thinks she knows (she does KNOW, however, that there is a 
contraint against fronting the velar nasals in formal contexts).   Opinions 
about "ending sentences with prepositions" are actually rules that represent 
some kind of linguistic knowledge, and occasionally one sees empirical reflexes 
of this "rule" in sentences such as "This is an idea of which I do not think 
very much." 

The obvious reason why "no one seems to *use* the word that way" is not that 
it does not have that meaning for a lot of people, but only that the occasions 
for using it in the prescriptivist way are very rare. However, as I have 
pointed out here several times, "use" consists not only of utterance but also of 
reception, and there are many of us who have trouble getting past the DECIM- 
without thinking of 'ten'. Maybe this is just linguistic "performance" rather 
than "competence" (if those 40-year-old terms still have any meaning), but it is 
definitely part of the linguistic mental process of assigning meaning that 
I--and a lot of other people--genuinely have. Moreover, if you ask people what 
DECIMATE means, many will give the presciptivist answer. Are they wrong about 
the meaning that they assign to this word--just because what they think it 
means does not conform to some linguists' view about what "actually" is the case?

Arnold (somewhat prescriptvely, it seems to me) wants to tell native speakers 
that they are wrong to think of the word in the way that many of them 
do--that the word "actually" does not "ha[ve] that
meaning." I think it would be more appropriate merely to tell native speakers 
that there is no intellectual justification for condemning ordinary speakers 
for using the word the way that it is normally used.

In a message dated 1/7/08 2:57:57 PM, zwicky at CSLI.STANFORD.EDU writes:

> 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.

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