Word Matters Podcast

Decimating Restrictions on 'Decimate'

Word Matters, Episode 65

Few words in the English language get people as riled up as the supposed "incorrect" use of decimate. Does it have to keep its Roman meaning of "reduce by one tenth" or can it generally mean "destroy," as it's been used by millions of speakers for hundreds of years?

Then we'll look at the language of invitations, and the rescinding thereof: yep, it's the difference between disinvite and uninvite.

Download the episode here.


Peter Sokolowski: The thing about these prefixes, these negation prefixes, we have more than we think. If we grew up speaking English, we take these things for granted.

Ammon Shea: There are so many words that have very specific Roman meaning in English.

Emily Brewster: Coming up on Word Matters: decimating the decimate dictate. And the different semantic territory covered by uninvite and disinvite. I'm Emily Brewster and Word Matters is produced by Merriam- Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media on each episode, Merriam-Webster editors Ammon Shea, Peter Sokolowski and I explore some aspect of the English language from the dictionary's vantage point. Some people care so deeply about how a particular word should and should not be used, that they allow relationships to be decimated when someone fails to follow their linguistic strictures. Ammon relays the tale of just such a decimation, this one over the word decimate itself.

Ammon Shea: We spend a lot of time at Merriam-Webster not just researching words, the meanings of words and the way that they're used, but also we spend a lot of time researching people's perceptions of words and how they feel about usage and occasionally grammar as well. And so we come across a lot of heated discussions of words and a lot of strongly held opinions. And sometimes these are people disagreeing with us, and sometimes they're people who agree with us. Sometimes they're angering and sometimes they're just kind of funny. And I have to say my favorite one that I ever came across, I think was in looking at how people feel about the word decimate. I came across the post on Twitter. It was posted July of 2015, and the hashtag was, "gotdumpedbecause" and people are obviously explaining why they got dumped. And this worthy grammarian says, "Got dumped because I insisted she learned that decimate means to reduce by one 10th. It doesn't mean wiped out, Vicky." Vicky if you're out there, please know that is the heartfelt congratulations-

Emily Brewster: Exactly.

Ammon Shea: from all of us here at Merriam-Webster, decimate does not have to mean "reduce by one tenth." And if somebody insists that you learn that it does, then it's an excellent reason for dumping them. I'm curious about, which is not just what the correct meaning or incorrect meaning or what the possible meanings of decimate are. What I'm more interested in, is why people are so bent on decimate having this meeting. And in case you're new to this, in which case you're very, very lucky that some portion of your life has not been wasted by this nonsense. There's this idea that decimate has one primary meaning and is the true meaning and that that meaning is to reduce something by one tenth. And that to use it in any other sense, as in "the crops were decimated," or "we decimated the enemy's forces by killing all of them," that all these other meetings are somehow incorrect.

And this is very peculiar, I think because decimate did in fact used to mean, to reduce by one tenth. And there was a Roman system of punishment for the military, it's used to keep strict control over the legions. And speaking of which, keeping control over the legions, legion used to be a very specific term with a very, very specific meaning. We don't insist that legion has that meaning anymore.

Peter Sokolowski: And what was the?

Ammon Shea: Legion was, the principle unit of the Roman army and it prized 3000 to 6,000 foot soldiers with cavalry. If you talk about, there were legions and legions of soldiers today, and somebody says it has to be between three and 6,000 and they have to be foot soldiers and they have to be with cavalry. People would say, what is wrong with you? That's just such an awkward distinction that nobody really makes anymore. And it is not really in any way applicable to modern day use.

Peter Sokolowski: And there was this term centurion. Centurion was one of those soldiers that was an elite soldier, an officer.

Ammon Shea: Right.

Peter Sokolowski: And the idea was, either that they come commanded 100 men or that they were one in a hundred.

Ammon Shea: Right. They commanded a hundred men because a century itself was the original meaning in English was referring to a subdivision of the Roman Legion. There are so many words that had very specific Roman meanings in English when they first came in. Missile originally when it was used in English referred to gifts thrown to the crowds by Roman Emperors.

Peter Sokolowski: Oh no kidding.

Ammon Shea: An ovation was a certain kind of military parade that was given with less than a triumph-

Peter Sokolowski: Oh I see.

Ammon Shea: which is a great military parade.

Peter Sokolowski: Triumph. There's another one that has a very specific meaning that is obviously not respected broadly in English anymore.

Ammon Shea: Absolutely. And it's not even that words from Roman times have changed meaning because of course that makes sense. It's people that like to say, well, but it's etymologically incorrect because deca-, it comes from the decem word, meaning ten, and so it has to kill one of every ten. Nobody ever insists that a dean still has to be in charge of ten students or ten people, even though that was the original meaning of dean in English.

Peter Sokolowski: Oh really?

Ammon Shea: And nobody insists that December cannot be the twelfth month because December comes from the word for ten. We're fine with this kind of etymological fluidity when we don't know about it, or when it's kind of seen as just a regular word. But this to me really brings back the question of, why are there so many partisans who feel that decimate have this quite frankly, totally illogical and insane meaning.

Peter Sokolowski: I'm guessing that decimate, that original meaning, which is sort of horrible to think about. It was also fairly rare, such a specific thing.

Ammon Shea: It was rare then, it's considerably more rare now. I mean, when was the last time you needed to talk about something being totally wiped out? It happens pretty frequently. When was the last time you needed to specifically refer to one of every ten of something being removed? It's not so current.

Peter Sokolowski: Now this entire phenomenon is what we call etymological fallacy. Is that correct?

Ammon Shea: It is. It's this idea that the etymology of a word, it should not just influence, but govern in many cases, restrict the word's current meaning. Which is why we of course know that a symposium has to be a drunken bacchanal because a symposium was drinking and carousing together. Back in the day are why we now know that all lefthanded people are sinister because it comes from the word sinistris. And of course a word's etymology is useful in some cases, ascertaining meaning, but it does not govern the word's meaning.

Peter Sokolowski: Not in contemporary use. Think of terms like quintessential, for example, because the fifth essence had some kind of magical property in the ancient world, but I don't think anyone is thinking about that when they say quintessential. I just think of the way that we use the word stigmatize, for example, I don't think we're using it literally in the etymological sense.

Ammon Shea: So why is it that decimate has these adherents? Is it that people are trying to make order in a chaotic senseless world? Is it that they just like to correct other people? Is it that they secretly want Vicky to break up with them and this is the easiest way to go about it because they don't have the heart to say that this isn't right for me? I don't know.

Peter Sokolowski: It reminds me of the problem with the term literally, when literally is used in its figurative sense. When literally is used as an intensifier and therefore it has this sort of semantic bleaching that it doesn't actually mean "by the letter" or "exactly." And it strikes me that these are two examples of specific English usage peeves that people carry with them for a long, long time. And I do think that you actually touched on something. I think that people like the little factoid, the story behind decimate is extremely memorable. And if you know it, then you'll never forget that meaning. And then therefore every time you encounter that word, you'll think of it. There's a piece of this that is just sort of connected to historical trivia.

Ammon Shea: That is part of it, I guess. And I think that's one of the reasons why we see so many etymological fallacies or so many kind of the bad explanations of words, like the wrong etymology of posh or-

Peter Sokolowski: Right. Right, right, right.

Ammon Shea: Things like that. "Port outward, starboard home," things that have no basis. In fact, it's because they're usually nice stories, these mistaken etymology you hear, they're not usually bad stories. They're just bad explanations. They're memorable stories.

Peter Sokolowski: The stories are actually too good in some ways because they end up being more memorable for a lot of people.

Ammon Shea: In almost all cases, I feel like if you hear a really great etymology, it should make you suspect immediately because quite honestly, most of them are pretty boring. And I think that the real reason, and this is just a guess in my part, but I think based in part on evidence like this tweet about the lucky Vicky, I think that many people enjoy words like this because they like to correct other people.

Peter Sokolowski: There's no question that that is a very, very widespread use of the dictionary, which is to correct somebody else. It has to be said if you're a teacher or a parent, that's great. There's no problem with that. But sometimes it is just like using it as a bat to hit some other people with.

Ammon Shea: I'm going to go out in a limb here and I'm going to say, that if you are the kind of person that insists that your girlfriend or boyfriend or significant other in any way, if you are willing to go on Twitter and say that I insisted that they learn this distinction, you might want to take a little reexamination of your prescriptivist tendencies.

Peter Sokolowski: What I like about that ... And here's where I make common cause with someone who would present that. Because I have encountered people who are very careful with the use of language and who care deeply about the language. And really that's what they're expressing. They're saying, "I care so much about this, that I don't want to hear it misused." And unfortunately it's almost like they only understood half of the dictionary definition because really in contemporary English, what the word means is much more important than showing off, essentially, that you know the etymology.

Ammon Shea: We love that adherence to specificity in language. We all care about language, that's great. I think that is something commendable. We hear people say, and I'm paraphrasing, but "everybody uses this word wrong, I hate it." And the problem for us is that now we've crossed a very significant distinction here, which is that for us when everybody uses a word it no longer matters whether it's right or wrong. It is de facto right. That is how we define a meaning as everybody uses it. So to us, that's the contradiction in terms.

Peter Sokolowski: Oh, absolutely.

Ammon Shea: Everybody uses it wrongly.

Peter Sokolowski: And this gets to other things. We are, as a species we are closely attached to what is familiar. Language is a habit. So if this was the way that our term was used in our region or our home or the way that our teachers insisted that really did stick with us, then it becomes a point of pride to hold to those traditions. It reminds me of my little pinned tweet on Twitter. Most English speakers accept the fact that the language changes over time, but don't accept changes that are made in their own time. Language change is just fast enough that we notice, but we almost always hate the changes that we notice.

Ammon Shea: One of the things that I like to bring up as well, is that people often accuse us as a dictionary of kind of abdicating a responsibility and saying, "Oh, you're willing to let anything go." And that's not at all true. We're trying to define common usage, or notable usage when it's widespread. We're not allowing anything into the dictionary. So for instance, decimate is not synonymous with devastate.

Peter Sokolowski: Right.

Ammon Shea: So were this fellow or this woman to have written, "Got dumped, Vicky left me and I'm decimated." We would consider that kind of a wrong usage. It doesn't carry the meaning the word is generally understood to have. And so if he says, however, we're not going to allow just any use of decimate into the dictionary. It's a very specific one that has considerable amount of evidence behind it.

Peter Sokolowski: And that's our job is just to observe. And it is a delicate thing, because people care about language. They want a kind of permanence to the language. And it's true that we revere good stylists, good writers, who we would say are timeless in their phrasing and choices of words. But the fact is the language does change all the time. So the dictionary is there to represent a kind of record of the standard usage of these terms and that standard usage does shift over time. It's just shifting very slowly. So for a professional writer or an editor or a student, it's important to know what are the conventions. And really the dictionary is a map and we hope that you can be guided by that map.

Ammon Shea: We do hope that. And we also hope, Vicky, wherever you are, that you have found someone who does not insist that you learn the ostensibly correct meaning of decimate.

Emily Brewster: You're listening to Word Matters. I'm Emily Brewster. Peter and Ammon will be right back with a discussion about disinvite and uninvite. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Ammon Shea: I'm Ammon Shea. Do you have a question about the origin history or meaning of a word? Email us at WordMatters@m-w.com.

Peter Sokolowski: I'm Peter Sokolowski. Join me every day for the word of the day. A brief look at the history and definition of one word available at Merriam-webster.com, or wherever you get your podcasts. And for more podcasts from New England Public Media, visit the NEPM podcast hub at nepm.org.

Emily Brewster: An uninvited guest is one who never received an invitation while a disinvited guest had their invitation revoked. Fortunately for you, dear listener, you are invited, no prefixes of undoing here to listen in as Peter leads an exploration of this puzzling pair.

Peter Sokolowski: So Ammon, and I have a quick quiz question for you. Which of the following two words is an entry in both the Samuel Johnson Dictionary and the Noah Webster dictionary? Disinvite or uninvite?

Ammon Shea: I'm going to go with un.

Peter Sokolowski: Well, actually disinvite is the word that they both define, which is kind of amazing that they did define disinvite, but they didn't define uninvite.

Ammon Shea: Did neither one of them define uninvite?

Peter Sokolowski: Right. Nope. As far as I know in their lifetime. They did have the adjective uninvited, but not the verb uninvite, which is sort of interesting.

Ammon Shea: What I find peculiar about this is that Samuel Johnson was obviously invited many places. He was a garrulous, well-known man. But I could certainly see Noah Webster being uninvited. So you would think that he would have at least a passing familiarity with the concept, if not the actual word.

Peter Sokolowski: It's true. That sort of does come down to us as a bit of a sour puss and maybe problematic socially. It's interesting that we have these two words in English. It's kind of another case of these near synonyms that are formed with different prefixes. Disinvite, uninvite, we understand them transparently. We understand them without hesitation, and yet they have slightly different histories. The thing about these prefixes, these negation prefixes, we have more than we think. If we grew up speaking English, we kind of take these things for granted, but there's un- and there's non-, but also in- of course, and dys- and a-, like atypical. So dis-, like dysfunctional or dishonest, there's imperfect and irregular and illogical, which all actually go back to the same roots, nonconformist and unpopular. Those are the way that we negate adjectives in English. Some of them are used that way because of phonetics more than etymology. So for example, irregular or irresistible has I-R, but illegible has I-L. Those are simple changes made for the phonetics of the words.

Ammon Shea: Immutable, innumerable.

Peter Sokolowski: Those are all actually the same negation prefix, but they have melted to fit the phonetics of the word they're linked to. These prefixes are all essentially based on Latin roots. But there's, of course, un-, U-N, which is from Old English, it's sort of the granddaddy of all of these in the English language. But the dis- in Latin, which means "apart" or "in different directions," also brings the idea of undoing something like disarm or disinherit or dishonor. But also, dis- has an analog for the positive side, so discord, if it's a negative term has concord, which is a positive term or disjunct and conjunct or dissent and consent or dissonance and consonance. So that con-, which means "with" or "together," pairs well with dis- frequently in the English language.

And it's also by the way, dis- is the prefix that we use in words like differ or diffuse. And we might not think of those as prefixes, but those were actually connected so long ago that now we just think of them as being one word. Think of a term like descant, which means singing apart or singing in two parts or counter melody. I think that's interesting because cant from cantor, cant means to sing and the dis- means to sing apart.

Ammon Shea: Something else I think we should point out though, is that in some of these cases, these prefixes are kind of interchangeable, perhaps the best known cases disinterested and uninterested.

Peter Sokolowski: Oh, of course.

Ammon Shea: Many times we hear people say that disinterested should only mean this one specific thing, which is "impartial," and uninterested should only mean this very distinct thing, which is "bored"-

Peter Sokolowski: Or indifferent.

Ammon Shea: When the words first came into English use in the early 17th century, they had the opposite meaning. In first use, disinterested was clearly used to mean lacking interest. Uninterested was clearly used to mean not biased.

Peter Sokolowski: I was going to say, these must have swapped because these are kind of classic usage bugaboos for good editors. And to be honest, I paid attention to this distinction.

Ammon Shea: They did flip early on. They flipped almost 400 years ago, but it's worth noting that when they did come into the language, they had a very distinct, different meeting than they have today.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah. And uninterested and disinterested. That's one to kind of keep straight for yourself because it's one of those things that will attract attention in the wrong kind of way that people will stop hearing what your point is and start criticizing your choice of vocabulary, which is never what you want as a writer. The thing about dis- and un-, are from two different roots. Dis- comes from Latin and un- comes from English. Dis- is typically attached to Latin based words, but sometimes it is attached to Old English-based words. So we have a handful of these like dislike or disowned, disbelief or distrust. So of course, Latin is well established in English and so we have connected these words cross etymologies in that particular way. And sometimes when we use these two prefixes in more distinct ways than disinterested and uninterested. So think of the word disgraceful, which is not the same thing as ungraceful, which I think is interesting. We can make a distinction and keep terms far apart and sometimes we make a distinction in there just a few degrees apart. But getting back to the unusual pair of uninvite and disinvite. One thing that these terms have as very distinct differences is the adjectives uninvited as "an uninvited guest" and uninviting, meaning like an uninviting odor. They're almost completely used in those ways and have no competition from what you might call competing forms, disinvited and disinviting, which we almost never see in English. So in some ways these words have landed right where they want to be. Uninvited and uninviting have no competition the way that the verb does, but disinvite can be used to mean to withdraw an invitation, which is exactly the way we understand uninvite. So this is where we get to this weird thing that both Johnson and Webster in 1755, 1828, respectively, they did define disinvite, but not uninvite, but they liked the adjective uninvited. This is one of those cases where we have the adjective going one way, but the verb going another way.

Ammon Shea: Did they also define the present participle, uninviting?

Peter Sokolowski: No. Neither Webster nor Johnson defined uninviting, but they may have looked at that as a kind of predictable form. And there's sometimes a little bit of a bias against those present participle adjectives.

Ammon Shea: But the past participle adjectives are much more likely.

Peter Sokolowski: Because they're more common. And present participle ones are usually predictable, they sometimes become gerunds. That's a different conversation for a different day. But if we get back to this interesting point about uninvite and disinvite, it does seem that disinvite has sort of won the day. Webster's Second from 1934 had an entry for disinvite and then it only had a special entry for uninvited it said "rare," it had the label "rare" for uninvite. But here's the thing over those 80 years since, it is no longer rare, it's a term that is almost interchangeable with disinvite. So we do find that these two words, which sort of started in different places, disinvite had a big head start on uninvite, but now we see that they're almost finishing as a tie in current usage.

Ammon Shea: Miraculously, they both still apply to Noah Webster.

Emily Brewster: Let us know what you think about Word Matters. Review us wherever you get your podcasts. Or email us at wordmatters@m-w.com. You can also visit us at nepm.org. And for the word of the day and all your general dictionary needs visit merriam-webster.com. Our theme music is by Tobias Voigt. Artwork by Annie Jacobson. "Word Matters" is produced by Adam Maid and John Voci. For Ammon Shea and Peter Sokolowski, I'm Emily Brewster. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

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