Pedantique-Ryter : changing meanings, right and wrong

hand slicing through a stone question markEnglish usage is full of constantly changing meanings. How often do you yell at the radio or TV because some idiot presenter doesn’t know his (or her) English usage? How is it that educated people so often get fairly common words wrong?

English is a vibrant, living language and evolving all the time.

Not always changing for the better, in my pedantic view. But I know I am probably fighting a losing battle against sloppy English.

Changing meanings as words enter more common usage

Some words used to have very specific and precise meanings but have been misused so much that the original meaning has no traction any more.
So, if I say, “We underestimate the enormity of the decimation,” what do I mean?

1  enormity

How often do you hear people talking about “the enormity of the task”. In other words, they’re using enormity as a noun from enormous. There is actually an appropriate noun here —
enormousness — but I’ve never heard it spoken, and rarely seen it written. Maybe because it’s such a mouthful that most people believe it’s wrong?

So people use enormity, instead, because it sounds more plausible. (And also because no one taught them that it’s incorrect?)

man gazing at skyscrapers -- enormity or enormousness?Enormity used to have a very clear meaning related to wickedness and implying a negative moral judgement. So it was correct to refer to “the enormity of the crime”, for example, or “the enormities of war”. It was, however, not correct to refer to “the enormity of that skyscraper over there”.

Sadly, the New Oxford Dictionary of English has given up the fight for enormity in its “proper” sense; it accepts that it’s now a neutral synonym for hugeness or immensity. I’d say that’s a pity, because the old sense allowed us to make clear how much we disapproved of that particular wickedness. And there are plenty of other words we can use to denote great size, aren’t there?

oops button on keyboard for when changing meanings catch us outHowever, I have to be honest here. Enormity didn’t always have that usage relating to wickedness so I’m possibly on dodgy ground when I’m defending it. Centuries ago, according to Fowler’s Modern English Usage, the word enormity referred to something that deviated from the norm (e+norm+ity) and could relate to behaviour or nature or size.

Over the years, the word became more narrowly defined. Now it seems to be broadening again. [Sigh]
Yes, English is always changing meanings.

2  decimate

Decimate has a really interesting history but very few people know it, because it relates to the Romans. And who studies Roman history these days?

The original meaning was “to kill one in every ten of a group of people”. You may think that’s weird, but keep reading. It gets weirder.

Decimation by William Hogarth 1725

Decimation by William Hogarth — illustration
for Beavers Roman Military Punishments 1725

In the Roman army, decimation was a punishment for troops who had committed capital offences such as mutiny. After a mutiny, you couldn’t execute a whole legion, even though they might all have been guilty of the crime.

So one man in ten would be chosen by lot for execution. And then — and this is the truly ghastly part of this death sentence, to my mind — the chosen men had to be killed by their comrades. The death was often by stoning which was neither quick nor merciful; it was designed to be an ordeal for the killers as well as for the poor victims.

That shows — possibly in too much graphic detail for your taste? — that the original meaning of decimate was to reduce by a tenth of the number, not to reduce to a tenth of the number. However, only pedants insist on that usage nowadays. The Oxford Dictionary admits that it’s almost always used now to mean to kill, destroy, or remove a large proportion of a group. It gives the example: “The virus has decimated the population” which is, it says, now part of standard English.

3  enormity of decimation?

For the record, my sentence about “underestimating the enormity of the decimation” was referring to the wickedness of forcing comrades to kill a tenth of their own number. And not saying — as I hope you realised — that we were underestimating the extent of the slaughter.

If you were caught out, don’t worry. The Oxford Dictionary is on your side, not mine. 😉

Dedicating Thank You

Is this Dame Isadora under that huge hat?But I shall continue to rant about changing meanings. And much more…

I. Pedantique-Ryter


PS I shall be out of the country when this post appears. As a result, I may not be able to pick up comments. If so, one of the hive gels will do her best to respond in my place.

24 thoughts on “Pedantique-Ryter : changing meanings, right and wrong

    1. Sophie

      Absolutely, especially as people use it to mean disengaged and therefore a BAD thing. It’s actually a very useful word used properly

      Though I sometimes wonder whether the concept of not having any personal advantage riding on an issue and therefore being able to approach a subject with logic and a genuinely open mind is now obsolete. All those knee-jerk reaction tweets! And some from people you would expect to know better, too.

      Sorry, small rant of my own there.

    2. AnneGracie

      Oh, me too, Liz. I’m always telling characters in book or on TV “no, they’re uninterested, not disinterested.”

  1. Elizabeth Bailey

    Knew the meaning of decimate, but had not got the whole phrase. Interesting. Changing meanings is fascinating altogether and shows how language is a fluid thing. The dictionary after all comes behind the spoken word.

  2. Georgie

    There are some words which have changed in US English, but not in UK English. ‘Devolve’ generally means ‘deteriorate’ in the US, whereas UK usage has ‘delegate’ as the main meaning.

    1. Sophie

      I would find both uses quite confusing, actually. In fact it’s an odd word altogether, to my ear. If you deconstruct the Latin it could mean so many things, it becomes meaningless. I wonder when it was first used and by whom? NOTE to Self: look it up!

  3. lesley2cats

    I knew decimate, having been pulled up on it by a very early NWS reader (don’t think it was even NWS, then) before I gave up romance altogether. This is a subject that infuriates me regularly, and I’m afraid that I get infuriated, too, by the use of “US English”. It isn’t English, then, is it? But on the other hand, we must remember that a lot of US usage began in England – “Fall” for instance.

    1. Sophie

      And the much disputed “gotten” also.

      It’s not just English that has the national variants. I remember being surprised that there were two Portuguese dictionaries, one for Portugal and one for Brazil, when I started to learn Portuguese many, many years ago.

      Mind you, The only difference I ever found, at that very early encounter, was when a Portuguese person said, “Não tem problema,” they meant, “I will have no difficulty in doing/organising that.” In Brazil it meant something like, “Hey, you’re nice, and I want you to be happy, so I hope you will forget what you just said because I haven’t a clue what you’re talking about and ain’t going to do a blind thing about it.”

  4. lesley2cats

    PS Then of course, there’s the Uxbridge English Dictionary, courtesy of the comedy programme I’m Sorry, I Haven’t A Cue. 🙂

  5. Sophie

    By the way, I am the first to reply to comments today because Dame Isadora is off taking her habitual educational vacation. No doubt she is, even now, peddling madly round Europe with her knapsack full of language reference books, eyes alight with missionary fervour to correct the English of guide books and public signage.

    She WILL be back, however. I hope.

    1. Dame Isadora Post author

      I do NOT peddle madly, Sophie dear, I pedal sedately and with dignity, befitting my station. At the moment, I am sitting on a train, however, and someone else is pedalling. As the wifi is not great, I shall refrain from answering any more of the comments. I must say that, for a beginner, Sophie dear, you are doing quite well on the responses.

      But I shall be watching, so please do not let this responsibility go to your dear little head.

      1. Sophie

        Thank you, Dame Isadora. I try to carry the banner with proper respect, though I can never hope to be more than but a pale shadow of your damely greatness.

        1. Dame Isadora Post author

          Quite right. And you have now taken mental note of the difference between peddle and pedal, I hope, dear?

    1. Sophie

      What a hoot! Still, you moved me to look up gamut – I mean I couldn’t PROVE it wasn’t some sort of medieval biker’s mitt – and it turns out to come from Mediaeval Latin and music terminology.

      In case you’re interested, it’s said to originate from “gamma ut”, gamma being the Greek letter of the alphabet that the Romans used to signify the lowest note in their scale. By mediaeval times the latter was bass G, or octave and a half below middle C, apparently.

      Whereas, I’ve always thought of it as spatial, like the whole distance of a race, for instance. Interesting anyway.

  6. Louise Allen

    ‘Quite’ is an interesting US/British English confusion. If I say something is ‘quite nice’ I’m damning with faint praise. An American is just praising it, from what I’ve observed.

    1. Sophie

      Quite is a bit of a minefield, I think. If you say someone is quite right, even in British English, you are endorsing their facts or opinion wholeheartedly, aren’t you? Quite hungry is fairly hungry BUT quite ready is all packed and ready to go.

      On the other hand, “I was quite angry” is probably an ironical understatement for someone who was just about ready to kill.

      This is a truly terrible language, you know…

      1. AnneGracie

        “Quite” can also be a very subtle put-down, not an endorsement at all, in fact. Shades of meaning.

  7. Sue McCormick

    Like several of the others here, I knew “decimate.” I did NOT know that the troops were required to carry out the punishment.

    I had NO idea of the meaning of enormity. I don’t use the word myself — and I have probably derived a meaning from the general context if I meet it in my reading.

    I’m bringing the “general context definition” idea up, because I believe a great many widely read people do this automatically. And this reaction to unknown words may have a very strong part in the evolution of word meanings.

  8. Sophie

    Fascinating point, Sue.

    Of course, eventually a word comes to mean what the majority of people who use it think it means. Language only works if we agree to believe in it. (Rather like money!)

  9. christinahollis

    The word ‘decimate’ brings back memories of Doc Martin (yes, really!) my dear old Classics tutor. It still unsettles me to hear that word misused. Now you’ve enlightened me about ‘enormity’, I shall be sure to say ‘enormousness’ from now on 🙂

    1. Sophie

      A very good point, Christina. Enormousness is a very good word. Definite overtones of Tiggerishness and even Paddington Bear. Shall try to use regularly.

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