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English 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?
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?)
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?
However, 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.
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.
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. 😉
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.