Evidence for DECIMATE ('one in ten')

James Harbeck jharbeck at SYMPATICO.CA
Thu Jan 10 05:01:23 UTC 2008

>   Should we care how Joe and Jolina Prig use their own vocabularies?
>That's their business. If they get too wild they, like Humpty
>Dumpty*, should be regarded as off their rockers.
>   This whole "decimate" madness (gee, I almost wrote "bullshit")
>arose because for
>   various prestige reasons the "true meaning" of "decimate" has
>become a shibboleth for various jackasses.

I agree, we certainly have the right to fight back if half-baked
prigs try to hijack the language. The point I was making in the first
place was just that sometimes the hijacking succeeds. I'm sure any of
the lexicographers on this list can think of words that in their
courses have changed meaning, spelling, and/or pronunciation just
because some people thought they should and succeeded in persuading
others (one that comes to mind is falcon, which was once faucon, then
got the l written in for etymological reasons, and then ultimately
came to have the l pronounced because it was there). Should they have
succeeded? If we think not, we can always fight, of course, but at
any given time, the language is as it is and we have to deal with
that. (I think that's a line from the linguists' national anthem,
isn't it?)

You won't get any disagreement from me on the jackass part of it. I'm
as put out by these sorts as you are. And I just don't actually see
people using "decimate" to mean "destroy one tenth of." My original
statements were more general responses; clearly I should have changed
the subject line.

Quite something how exercised people can get about points of usage,
isn't it? Knowledge of usage seems to be taken in our society as an
index of intelligence, even of personal worth, and so these spurious
trump cards certainly are provoking.

James Harbeck.

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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