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Wednesday, August 15, 2018


“Decimate” is now used as a synonym for “wipe out” or “obliterate” but that is not its original meaning.  Two thousand years ago, when a Roman legion had performed disastrously or had disobeyed orders in battle, as an extreme punishment its soldiers were lined up and every tenth soldier was put to death – the legion was decimated.  The aim was not to obliterate the legion but to enforce strict and harsh discipline.

This is an utterly useless piece of information, but it is interesting.


Anonymous said...

Let me add that the victims were selected by lot among their cohort. If your cohort was chosen for decimation, you either killed or were killed by your fellow comrades in arms. This fact seems to add to the brutality.

Also, Prof. Wolff, your blog is a treasure.

Dean said...

From an OED entry on the term: "More generally: to reduce drastically or severely; to destroy, ruin, devastate. This use has sometimes been criticized on etymological grounds (see, for example, M. West & P. F. Kimber Deskbk. Correct Eng. (1957) 119 and quot. 1944), but is now the most usual sense in standard English." Earliest example for this usage? 1660, a single sheet titled, "Word to Ranting Royalists."

Anonymous said...

Except for scholars or other students of Roman history or Latin, the original meaning of the English word decimate is no longer useful, but the use of decimate for obliterate and so on seems a natural extension of its original meaning—and it keeps the word with us: otherwise decimate would be obsolete or even archaic, which I think would be too bad, and such life as was left to it would be a silent one confined to a few lines in the Oxford English Dictionary. And what kind of life is that for a good word? (Again, this is an English word, not the original Latin anyway.) If a lot of us use the word in its current meaning, then some of us might deliberately look it up once in a while in the OED and read its etymology—and then we’d see what it meant when it first entered English, and we’d have a history lesson from that. Without the inducement to look it up due to our everyday use of it, who would know what it meant way back when? And what would keep it alive? In Hegelian terms, es ist augehoben, and that keeps it going. By the way, the word egregious has a similar strange history. It comes from the Latin word grex, which meant herd, and e(x). To be egregious originally meant to stand out from the herd, to be distinguished, and so on. Hobbes uses it in this sense. He says something about his not being so egregious a mathematician as somebody else (I don’t remember whom). Of course, Hobbes thought he could square the circle, and this might lead one to suspect that he was indeed an egregious mathematician, in the current sense of that adjective, this latter sense being pretty much the opposite of the original.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

All lovely comments. To the first anonymous: it would perhaps surprise you to learn how much your words of praise mean to me. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Two things: First, I meant to type es ist aufgehoben in my earlier comment, not augehoben (which doesn’t mean anything auf deutsch—and perhaps you don’t think the former means anything either, since you loathe Hegel). Mea culpa. Second, I was curious about the reference I made to Hobbes’s use of the word egregious. So I rummaged around the internet and learned something else about this. I don’t know where I first read the Hobbes quotation (probably 40+ years ago), but Merriam-Webster’s online has Hobbes using egregious in the old, original sense (of distinguished, standing out from the herd, etc.)—flattering some mathematician by saying “I’m not so egregious a mathematician as you are.” It seems that this sense of the word was first recorded around 1534 (according to M-W). The OED supports this and dates this laudatory use of the word to the middle of the 16th century, and then notes that the pejorative sense caught on in the late 16th century. Looks like the laudatory sense held the field for only a short time. Wonder what happened? The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (again, online) has Hobbes firing off the word in a pejorative sense at some medieval philosophers: “Hobbes’s attitude to Aristotelianism comes across forcefully in a discussion in Behemoth (1668) that begins by describing Peter Lombard and John Duns Scotus as writing like ‘two of the most egregious blockheads in the world.’” (Maybe we’re witnessing here the Aufhebung in real time of the meaning of egregious. Die List der Vernunft was perhaps having its way with Hobbes, unknown to him.) Blockhead has been with us in English since at least 1549, by the way, just about 39 years before Hobbes and fear were born twins. I know that all this is a long way from your causal, wistful comment on the lost history of decimate, but a good teacher never knows what thoughts he’ll provoke in others. You’re a good teacher.

Anonymous said...

My parents were purists about many words, including not only "decimate" but (of course) "hopefully". They often attributed the passing of this usage into colloquial American English usage to JFK. About 25-30 years ago, I noticed, either in Fowler's or the OED, that the first documented use of "hopefully" in the sense of "it is to be hoped that" or "I hope that" was dated c. 1620. When I casually mentioned this to my father after using it in the way that I knew would provoke his ire, he immediately shot back, "They didn't know how to spell back then, either." I was speechless (and impressed).

Dean said...

"Momentarily" is another good one of which I'm well aware, because I use it arguably incorrectly much of the time to mean "soon." According to OED, my usage is "Chiefly N. Amer.," which makes perfect sense, since I, too, am chiefly N. Amer.

Anonymous said...

I'm a different anonymous from the "hopefully" one above. I had a very intelligent and meticulous secretary who, after watching Ken Burns's Civil War when it was first on PBS in the early 1990s or thereabouts, told me that the newspaper editors in the 1860s didn't know how punctuate headlines, because the pictures of all the newspapers shown on Burns's documentary had periods after all the headlines. I said, well, yeah that's how they did it back then. And she said, yeah, they didn't know how to do it right. Knowing how to punctuate things correctly was something she took pride in and which contributed to her sense of self-identity and self-worth, so I knew better than to argue with her about it--or tell her that (and why) she was wrong. (I think I knew it would be uncivil of me to tell her she was wrong about this: it mattered a great deal to her, and didn't matter much to me. A modus vivendi is good enough in most things.) Nietzsche said that lack of historical sense is the family failing of all philosophers, but I suspect that this failing applies to just about everybody, maybe most of the time.

Anonymous said...

In reply to Dean: I’m not so sure that you’re wrong—even “arguably” wrong—to use momentarily to mean soon. I bet E.B. White wouldn’t have liked it: he probably would have said that soon is good enough. But he didn’t speak ex cathedra, despite what a lot of dim English teachers have believed about his infallibility. (He was woefully wrong about, for example, “hopefully” (or anyway his reasons for proscribing it were muddled) and wrong about the verb “to contact.” Maybe wrong in such things just means out-of-date. The world moves on and language usage moves on with it.) According to Merriam-Webster’s, momentarily has multiple meanings, one of which is “at any moment: in a moment, [as in] ‘will be leaving momentarily.’” There is an archaic sense of the term—namely as a synonym for “instantly.” So, what made that meaning archaic? The only answer I can dream up is that people stopped using it in that sense. Hmmm. There are shades of Wittgenstein here: use is the source of meaning. Rather a repugnant thought to the conservatives: we’re just on our own and have to make things up as we go along. I’d say that if there’s anything wrong with momentarily, it’s just that there’s too many syllables in it. Soon does the job with one. Then again, momentarily sounds nice. If you’re committed to efficiency, then stick with soon; if you like the music of words, momentarily is good.

marcel proust said...

(I was the "hopefully" anonymous... I thought I left my name, but it is apparent that I did not (was about to type "... apparently I did not", but in a strict grammar-nazi sort of way, if we are to insist that "hopefully" is an adverb that must modify another word in the sentence, perhaps but not necessarily a verb, consistency insists that the same rule applies to "apparently"!))

To "Anonymous" at 8/15/2018, 10:55PM - "The world moves on and language usage moves on with it... The only answer I can dream up is that people stopped using it in that sense... we’re just on our own and have to make things up as we go along." Think of the children. How will they ever learn to speak properly if we adults do not hold up standards and hold them to our high expectations for them? This is a slippery slope. We've got trouble in River City!

Anonymous said...

To: “Marcel Proust”
What you (or, rather, the rubes you’re parodying) are calling a slippery slope, I call history. And it’s not very slippery—in fact, usually it’s more like cold molasses moving reluctantly along a slight incline. “The children” learn language from their parents and other adults around them long before they start rebelling against linguistic conventions and invent new conventions, such as juvenile slang (but not only that). And mostly, as they grow up, they stick with what they were taught, though they make new additions here and there and leave some things behind. Some of the changes in language are trivial and will probably be evanescent (e.g., you don’t hear copacetic or groovy, anymore); some are profound and are deep responses to changes in the world. So, yeah, the world changes, and language changes along with it. It had better. The world is the dog here, and language the tail. (Sure, this is more or less characteristic of modern western societies and other contemporary societies affected by modern ideas emanating from the West. More traditional societies out of our orbit pretty much avoid immanent change.) And so on. I don’t think that there are any transcendent Platonic Forms or deus ex machina interventions that legitimize forever certain words or language constructions and proscribe others. The Forms, such as they are, are historical and dynamic. Anyway, you were being facetious, and I bet that you don’t believe the usage police any more than I do. River City gets in trouble when the residents think and act like the world doesn’t change, and that old ideas and modes of expression are right—full stop. Ideas and their expression (in language, but not only that) are right as long as they work.

mesnenor said...

Here are a couple of possibly pertinent links:

David Foster Wallace on Usage Wars and "snoots":

Geoffrey K. Pullum on the idiocy of Strunk & White: