damnum absque injuria

September 11, 2011

Memo to the Folk at Instapundit

Filed under:   by Xrlq @ 8:32 pm

Yes, it is. “Etymology,” on the other hand, is not a synonym for “meaning.”

13 Responses to “Memo to the Folk at Instapundit”

  1. mikee Says:

    Decimate is a word with a correct meaning, to reduce by 10%, and an incorrect but commonly used meaning, as a synonym to devastate.

    For example, that “I am devastated by the loss of my husband to cancer” is not the same as “I am decimated by the loss of my husband to cancer.”

    People also misuse other words, quite commonly. It is a fact that they do so, but not a desirable action.

  2. Xrlq Says:

    Meanings shift over time. Today’s meaning of a word is yesterday’s “incorrect” meaning. And if we’re going to play the originalist game, the original meaning of decimate was a tad nastier than simply “reducing” by 10%. A 10% reduction in force means 10% of your workers got laid off, not that every 10th got murdered at random.

  3. McGehee Says:

    Meh. If one means “devastated,” why not say “devastated?” What is gained by using a word that — even if it is a synonym, which it isn’t — brings no profit to the user or the listener (many of whom are so distracted by the impropriety of the usage that they miss the rest of what is said)?

  4. Xrlq Says:

    They are synonyms. Arguing the definition of “decimate” based on what the word used to mean makes no more sense than arguing the definition of “devastate* based on what *that* word used to mean. Every language known to man is chock full of words that used to mean one thing and now mean something else.

  5. tgirsch Says:

    Wow, I’m late to this. I get that meanings shift over time, but what bugs me about this particular kind of shift is that it leaves us without a word that means what the commonly-misused word used to mean. We now no longer have a word that clearly means “reduce by 10%,” just as we no longer have a word that clearly means “one of a kind,” etc.

    Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go tell those kids to get off my lawn.

  6. Xrlq Says:

    I understand, but what really gets under my skin is never having had a word meaning “increase 7.3%.” or “three of a kind” in the first place.

  7. tgirsch Says:


    In any case, I see how “decimate” isn’t a huge loss, but the loss of “unique” matters, because the original meaning is still needed fairly often.

  8. tgirsch Says:

    (Also, in your examples, we NEVER had a word that meant those things. In mine, we used to, but because of meaning shift, we no longer do. Hence we’re dealing with something lost rather than something that didn’t exist in the first place.)

  9. SPQR Says:

    There was actually a version of “decimation” wherein 1 in 10 of a condemned group survived.

  10. Xrlq Says:

    Interesting. That definition makes just as much sense etymologically, and fits much closer to most people’s traditional understanding of the word. My guess is the average joe would assume 0 in 10 survive a “decimation,” until you point out that it’s based on the same root as “decimal,” at which point he’d grudgingly concede that 1 in 10 must survive.

    The more I think about it, the idea that decimation ever meant reduction *by* 10% is weird. Imagine if “annihilate” meant “reduce by nothing.”

  11. tgirsch Says:

    This seems apropos.

  12. Xrlq Says:

    Indeed, and not just because it’s a web site called Xkcd in response to a guy named Spqr on a blog called Xrlq. But somehow it seems to fit in nicely that way, as well.

  13. Jackie H. Says:

    Regardless, I feel the connotation of a word such as “decimate” will always conjure up a feeling of significant loss to any reader. Very interesting post.

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