DECIMATE (one more time)

Jonathan Lighter wuxxmupp2000 at YAHOO.COM
Tue Jan 8 16:10:14 UTC 2008


  But back to Jesse's use of "frobnitz," which touches upon the profound issue of how one can tell what somebody else means.

  True, one would have to be a complete fantasist to force the meaning "wiped out one-tenth of" in exx. such as "The plague of snail flu frobnitzed the Squeedunk population."

  That's because the real-world context of "forbnitz" is different from that of "decimate."

  It is virtually certain that any educated Victorian writer, regardless of the importance of his work, would be familar with the Latin etymology of "decim-," though not of "frobnitz."  Just as there are hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of prescriptivists and prescriptivist dupes who believe that "decimate" must *only* mean "wipe out [about] one-tenth of," it seems likely that such people existed in the past as well, and published writers in a very conservative publishing environment must be expected to have comprised a fair proportion of them.  Thus it is reasonable to suspect that, when the immediate context supports it, that meaning was the one intended.  Specific exx. may well be ambiguous, but the totality of the Google Books cites suggests that the meaning was certainly in the minds of at least some of the writers.

  We give R. G. White too much credit in assuming that he invented the prejudice himself, though he undoubtedly contributed greatly to its publicity and currency.  White could hardly have been the sole nitpicker in the philology racket during the 19th C.

  To "frobnitz" in the corresponding sense does not have the Classical support of "decimate." Unlike the Romans, we have not felt independently the practical need for a technical term with that specific sense (or if we have, the word used is so obscure that nobody knows about it).  Therefore it would be entirely visionary, not to to say idiotic, to assume without numerous more persuasive exx. that to "frobnitz," as Jesse uses it, "means" what the prescriptivists claim "decimate" *can only* mean.

  If you see what I'm saying.


David Bowie <db.list at PMPKN.NET> wrote:
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Sender: American Dialect Society
Poster: David Bowie
Subject: Re: DECIMATE (one more time)

From: "Arnold M. Zwicky"
> On Jan 7, 2008, at 8:53 AM, James Smith wrote:

>> I'm getting confused by this discussion. Is it the
>> contention of this discussion that "decimate" does not
>> and never has meant killing one in ten; that such a
>> concept is totally foreign to the origin of this word
>> and has been invented in recent times to match the
>> word with a spurious etymology?

> i don't know how you got this idea...

FWIW, i *completely* understand how James Smith got that idea. I mean, i
came into this knowing the historical background behind the word
"decimate", and having read previous discussions about it, and i was
starting to get confused, myself.

Of course, i also don't care and will happily continue going about using
it to mean "largely or completely destroyed" no matter what discussion
about it there might be, so it's not like it really matters.

David Bowie University of Central Florida
Jeanne's Two Laws of Chocolate: If there is no chocolate in the
house, there is too little; some must be purchased. If there is
chocolate in the house, there is too much; it must be consumed.

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