Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The peeve to beat all peeves?

Arnold Zwicky thinks the peeve about the meaning of decimate should get a prize for its persistence in the face of usage facts: The Peevy for Lifetime Achievement. 

We could debate the merits of the hopefully peeve as a rival candidate -- its heyday was much shorter, but the argument was often hotter, given that hopefully was a more common "transgression." But there's no debate about the prizeworthiness of the decimate question. Here's an excerpt from the column I wrote about it in the Boston Globe (July 1, 2007), after a reader insisted that "To decimate means to reduce by 10 percent, as was done by the Roman legions."
So it does, when you're speaking of the Roman Army, or of others who copied their harsh punishment for mutinous legions. But as an English word, decimate has always had a wider scope. Since the mid-17th century, says the Oxford English Dictionary, the word has also been used to mean "destroy or remove a large proportion of."
Nobody objected, it seems, for more than two centuries; there was the military decimate and the loose, emphatic decimate, each in its proper place. But in 1870, according to Merriam-Webster's Concise Dictionary of English Usage, the popular American language commentator Richard Grant White declared war on the degraded decimate.
 White inspired some followers, but the purists met resistance from the start. In an 1885 essay, writer Grant Allen rebuked the "superfine English" crowd, saying there was "surely nothing very wrong or out-of-the-way" in expanding the sense of decimate.
 H.W. Fowler, that notable stickler, also condoned the nonclassical usage, writing in Modern English Usage (1926) that it was "natural" to use decimate loosely. Current dictionaries and usage guides agree; decimate no longer means "reduce by 10 percent" -- if it ever did -- except in historical references. ...
If you pine for the classical decimate, though, you have a champion in [the late] language columnist William Safire. When he first addressed decimate, 25 years ago, he agreed with Fowler: "To limit the word's meaning to 'one-tenth' would be like limiting myriad to its literal '10,000.'" But a few years later, he quietly flip-flopped, warning readers that "unless purists persist, decimate will come to mean 'destroy a large part of.'" In 2004 he reaffirmed his faith: "Decimated means reduced by 10 percent."
But he was right the first time. If etymology governed usage, as he noted, we'd have to stop using myriad for "lots" -- and journal for anything not published daily, and honeymoon for wedding trips shorter than a month. That way lies lunacy.
Besides, we don't especially need a term that means "kill one in 10." As Barbara Wallraff notes in her book "Word Court," you're free to use decimate only in the narrow sense -- but "in that case, you won't be using the word very often."


Bryan M. White said...

Would it be too snarky to speculate that this peeve might hold a fascination for people who are a little too proud to show of the fact that they know that "deci-" stands for "ten"? ;D

I'm totally in favor of the word having a wider definition - not only because it's been so widely used in a broader sense for ages, the ship having long since sailed, the horses having long since left the barn - but also because it serves so well in that broader sense. It's desperately NEEDED there. To restrict it to the "ten percent" definition would seem like a demotion, like sending an employee who has been ably and deftly juggling a desk full of responsibilities to sit in the back corner office where their only responsibility is to hand out paper clips. And for what? Because their name starts with the letter Q and we're trying to alphabetize the office? To satisfy a 30 year old subclause in the company handbook about the even distrubtion of lighting and electricity?

When nitpicking starts to get in the way of efficiency someone is clearly missing the point.

Gregory Lee said...

I am totally out of sympathy with Arnold's effort to award this particular peeve the distinction of being worst peeve of all. Next thing you know we'll be looking around for the best peeve of all. Peeving is a socially destructive and totally illegitimate activity. Down with all peeves!

Tudza White said...

I think Barbara Wallraff is stating exactly the case those who wish to use decimate in a strict sense are suggesting.

Stan said...

So I was right to include decimate in my usage peeve bingo card!

The Peevy is a great idea. It could be an annual thing, granting ironic-iconic status to these tired old bugaboos. This would make them even more ridiculous, which can't be a bad thing.

The tricky part is deciding which to vote for — there are so many to choose from. Maybe literally: I see complaints about it almost every week, and if I went looking for them I'd find new ones hourly.

Marc Leavitt said...

I think prevailing usage has more than decimated the original meaning.

Michael Koplow said...

Gregory Lee, hear hear!

Stan, I agree with you about literally:

Richard Hershberger said...

"Would it be too snarky to speculate that this peeve might hold a fascination for people who are a little too proud to show of the fact that they know that "deci-" stands for "ten"?"

Not at all. It is perfectly clear that the main point of complaining about "the hoi polloi" is to provide an opportunity to flaunt the complainer's one piece of knowledge about Greek. Back when educated people actually learned Greek, "the hoi polloi" was considered unremarkable.