Decimated English

You only have to dabble around in literature on language for a while to realize there’s an ongoing debate about ‘correct’ language use. For those passionate linguistic warriors it’s not even a debate but a battle. We’re talking about prescriptivism vs. descriptivism.

In short, prescriptivists believe that we are getting sloppier with our language, people don’t communicate correctly anymore, and, thus, English is going to the dogs. Meanwhile, descriptivists are not concerned with enforcing grammar rules and lamenting the glory days of the English language but just record language as it is and label the so-called deterioration of English as ‘language change’. Prescriptivists tend to be non-linguists; descriptivists tend to be linguists, or anyone who’s ever read a book on language change.

Personally, I find the argument generally uninteresting. What I do find interesting are those little articles prescriptivists write with titles like ’10 Words You Didn’t Know You Were Using Incorrectly’ or ’15 Words That Don’t Mean What You Think They Mean’. Not because I learn exactly how my understanding of English is ‘wrong’ but because of the interesting etymology that they reveal. For example, a word that came up recently was decimate. Most of us understand decimate with the first meaning cited in the OED:

verb  [with object]

  1. kill, destroy, or remove a large proportion of:

            ‘the inhabitants of the country had been decimated’

  •  drastically reduce the strength or effectiveness of (something):

             ‘public transport has been decimated’

But this article pointed out that the ‘real’ meaning isn’t to destroy totally or even largely but it means, very specifically, to destroy one tenth of something, which seems obvious when you look at it: decimate comes from the Latin decimare whose root is decem, meaning ‘ten’ like the decem in December. It entered English in the 15th century with the sense of a tithe, a tax of ten per cent of one’s annual income, but within a hundred years it came to mean ‘destroy a large portion of something’.

However, the original Roman practice of decimare was a punishment on mutinous legions or rebellious cities. Soldiers would be drawn out by lots of ten and one in every lot would be executed. Consequently, the group was decimated.

Although it would be easy to mourn the loss of such a delightfully precise meaning, we have gained a more general and widely-used meaning in the process. Language change does not leave a language ‘decimated’ but helps us to communicate as our society evolves, unless of course we want to keep those old Roman punishments too.


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