Etymology vs. Meaning:

A commenter on the prescribe/proscribe thread writes, "To decimate is to kill one in ten," strongly suggesting that this is the only proper meaning for the term.

This is incorrect. To decimate originally meant to kill one in ten, though I wouldn't be surprised if even some ancient Romans used it loosely or figuratively. Today, the term is considerably broader. You may be annoyed by this usage; you may counsel cautious writers against it (as I do in my Academic Legal Writing book); but I know of no sensible definition of "incorrect" under which the usage is incorrect, and of no sensible definition of "is" under which "To decimate" is only "to kill one in ten."

Of course, the same applies in lots of other cases. Journal comes from the word for "day," but today also means "periodical," including periodicals published at much longer intervals (e.g., the Yale Law Journal). Vaccine comes from "vaccinia," the name for cowpox (which was used to inoculate people against smallpox), but today you can have vaccines against other diseases that are made from things other than cowpox. Etymology is interesting -- but it's not the same as meaning.

John Armstrong (mail):
God bless the OED

Historically, the meaning of the word decimate is `kill one in every ten of (a group of people).' This sense has ben superseded by the later, more general sense `kill or destroy a large part or percentage of,' as in: the virus has decimated the population. Some traditionalists argue that this and other later senses are incorrect, but it is clear that these extended senses are now part of standard English. It is sometimes argued that decimate should refer to people and not to things or animals such as weeds or insects. It is generally agreed that decimate should not be used to mean `defeat utterly.'
2.28.2006 2:23pm
Agreed--"terrific" may have once meant "terrifying" but it doesn't anymore. But this this mean that we sticklers have to give up and accept that "begs the question" now means "raises the question," regardless of what it originally meant?
2.28.2006 2:31pm
KMAJ (mail):
Prof. Volokh,

You should probably add to your etymology list the most abused word, in my opinion, liberal and liberalism. The definition today has gone far awry of its original meaning when describing Jeffersonian liberalism. It has even led to classification of 'classical liberalism' and 'modern liberalism'. I contend they are not even remotely related. In most of mainland Europe (Great Britain has adopted the US version), liberal parties are considered conservative in ideology. Modern liberalism is more closely alligned with today's progressive movement, which is quasi- or neo-socialist in nature and spawned by the New Deal. Classic liberalism is more closely alligned with today's libertarian party, though not quite as anarchic.
2.28.2006 2:34pm
How about enormity/enormousness? The use of "inchoate" when "chaotic" is meant? "Effete" to mean "effeminate"? Is there any point at which we stop appeasing the descriptivists?
2.28.2006 2:45pm
Greedy Clerk (mail):
Etymology is interesting -- but it's not the same as meaning.

Well said. Nothing annoys me more when people pull that kind of BS. Languages evolve -- evolution of language is in many respects much slower today because of mass media and mass communication, which cut down on regional variances (but it also evolves faster in other respects because of how fast we are learning of new things, requiring new words, and new usages of words, etc.) Don't fight the evoluion of the English language, ok? Otherwise, we would all be speaking some ooga booga language of cavemen.

Further, one more pet peeve: there is nothing wrong with "splitting" infinitives. English is not Latin. An infinitive in English is generally two words: i.e., to be, not ser. Thus, they can obviously be split. Also, ending sentences with prepositions is not wrong -- sometimes it is awkward not to do so. Of course, it is good to avoid both practices in certain formal writing BUT ONLY because of all the people who think they are so much better than the dirty masses because they don't split infinitives and end sentences with prepositions. Sometimes, those clowns, are the ones you are trying to presuade to do something (see Judges), and the last think you want to do is get them annoyed because you say "to really be . . " rather than "to be really . . " or some such nonsense.

2.28.2006 2:46pm
Greedy Clerk (mail):
KMAJ -- you kinda missed the whole point of the Professor's post.
2.28.2006 2:47pm
bornyesterday (mail) (www):
This is rather awesome, don't you think?
2.28.2006 2:52pm
Houston Lawyer:
My bad

If everyone has their own usage, then the majority rules irregardless.
2.28.2006 2:56pm
Starboard Attitude (mail):
2.28.2006 3:08pm
Oh, to live in a simpler time when "ain't" ain't a word, "gay" means cheerful, and a "ballad" is a song that tells a story (as opposed to a corny attempt at a love song by an '80s hair band).
2.28.2006 3:21pm
Some funny linguistic rules strict constructionalists (not in the constitutional sense) often don't realize, or never learned, or just plain ignore:

1) There's two meanings to a word: the "denotation," the strict dictionary definition, and the "connotation," the common application of the word.

2) As the good professor points out, language is an ever-changing animal. Words can "degenerate," meaning they lose their strict dictionary definition and develop only a vague meaning. (I.e., the word "great," as in, "That movie was...." Does it really mean anything other than a rough idea that one enjoyed something?) They can also "regenerate," where they redevelop an old meaning.

3) Language constantly absorbs new words for new meanings. Five years ago, "Google" was a search engine. Now we find ourselves using it to mean a general internet search. Raise your hand if you didn't realize that "Xerox," "Kleenex," and "Thermos" are all corporate names. (If you're a Trademark attorney, you probably knew this.) As much as we'd like it to be, language is not a static animal.

4) ...which reminds me of the fact that people probably couldn't stand to know: much of the English language is actually French. When the Normans conquered England hundreds of years ago, the French became the upper crust and the natives became the lower class. French words then tended to refer to wealthier items. A native lived in a "hus" (or "house" as we know it today), while the French lived in a "maison" (or "mansion"). Thus, many words we use today are derived from French words for things we'd like. (This point isn't particularly relevant...I just find it amusingly ironic.)

5) Finally, a typical communications problem we have is people's perception of a word versus what the word actually means. Not to be a relativist, but people sometimes say things which sound completely stupid to us, but fine to the speaker, because he/she doesn't know any better. So maybe somebody, somewhere, started using the word "decimate" in reference to mass destruction, not actually knowing that it meant "one in ten." His meaning caught on, and here we are. (I personally get frustrated when I hear someone say "I could care less" when I know they mean "I COULDN'T care less." That's my own pet peeve.)

So gee whiz, try to be a little more forgiving when contemporary use creeps over the OED meaning. Clarify, get on the same page, and move on.
2.28.2006 3:22pm
18 USC 1030 (mail):

"Awesome" post! Only wish I could have posted it first. Last semester I wrote a paper on post 9/11 security measures and at one point in the introduction I used the word awesome to describe the events of 9/11. Prior to turning it in, I asked a few people to read it to make sure the context made it obvious what I meant. Apparently the Prof. didn't think so. There was a HUGE note written through the whole paragraph asking me what kind of sick person I was refering to 9/11 as awesome. I later explained that there was another meaning to the word...
2.28.2006 3:31pm
ResIpsaLoquitur wrote:
Language constantly absorbs new words for new meanings. Five years ago, "Google" was a search engine. Now we find ourselves using it to mean a general internet search. Raise your hand if you didn't realize that "Xerox," "Kleenex," and "Thermos" are all corporate names. (If you're a Trademark attorney, you probably knew this.) As much as we'd like it to be, language is not a static animal.
IIRC Aspirin also started out as a brand name, as did heroin (before it was banned). Also I've seen Mapquest used as a verb in the same manner as Google.
2.28.2006 3:33pm
Jeremy Pierce (mail) (www):
The one I see most often is people claiming that 'racism' means "a view that one race is superior to another", as if it's about an intellectual view rather than an attitude. It surely once meant that, but it no longer does in most English dialects.
2.28.2006 3:40pm
Just now on Belmont Club I noticed that a commentator to a thread of entirely different subject matter had this example of "language drift" to offer:
It's an outrage!

A lot of rage comes from a mistake in etymology. ``Outrage'' comes from French ``outre,'' beyond what is proper, made into a noun with -age, outre-age.

English then notices the ``rage'' part, and thinks it proves that something beyond what is proper deserves rage, ``the word itself says so.''

This idea is so useful that it was re-imported back into French.

But it's a mistake. There's no connection between what is beyond the customary and rage.
2.28.2006 4:26pm
Bruce Hayden (mail) (www):
I don't think it accurate to say that a lot of English is really French. Yes, English has a lot of French words in it, as it also has a lot of Latin and Greek. And, yes, the aristocracy spoke French for two or three hundred years or so - it isn't exactly clear when they stopped. I will suggest though that the weird grammar actually came from trying to impose Latin rules on English, not French ones (though, of course, French comes from Latin). It really ended when the English crown lost its French possessions, and the aristocracy had to pick one sovereign or the other. Some stayed in France, and others in England, and started speaking English shortly thereafter.

In any case, the problem with claiming a lot of French heritage is that probably never more than 1% or so of those in England ever spoke the language, during the time that it was the language of the aristocracy there. Part of this is because the Normans were very insular. You were either born into Norman aristocracy, or on rare occasion, girls married into it. But, over all, there was almost no route to join it by their English subjects. So, English was quite alive through all their reign, spoken by 99% or so of the population.

I think one place where French roots are still evidenced in English is the different names for animals and their flesh. You can pretty well determine from that what the Normans ate - venison, beef, etc., but not that much chicken or fish. Since the English were raising the cows, they kept their older German/Norse name.
2.28.2006 4:28pm
JLR (mail):
The concluding sentence of Professor Volokh's post states:

"Etymology is interesting -- but it's not the same as meaning."

That's true. However, etymology can, and often does, inform a word's meaning.

Meaning contains both denotation and connotation. Various dictionaries contain synonym guides to help the reader pick one word's connotation over another.

Here's a great example: Composure and equanimity, while synonymous, are not precisely the same. Certain contexts may call for one synonym over the other synonym. Etymology is one element that helps determine which synonym to choose. "Equanimity" comes from the Latin aequus animus, meaning "even mind" [or, to make it case-correct, aequo animo, meaning "with even mind"]. "With even mind" provides a specific connotation to the denotation of calmness/tranquillity, and that connotation is sometimes called for in specific circumstances.

"Composure" (itself a word of English formation via etymological form-association from Latin) contains obsolete meanings of "composition" that derive from its etymology. Its etymology and obsolete meanings inform the denotation of "composure" as calmness/tranquillity with the connotation of "composure" as "putting one's mind together."

"Putting one's mind together" ("Composure") can be different from "with even mind" ("Equanimity"). This accords with, inter alia, Merriam-Webster's synonym guide indicating that "composure" implies controlling one's agitation through habituation, while "equanimity" implies an almost stoic mindset (i.e., a mindset that is not disoriented when under great stress).

So yes, the example of "decimate" that Professor Volokh writes about indicates the dangers of conflating etymology with meaning. But nevertheless, etymology can and does inform meaning.

Thank you.
2.28.2006 4:28pm
Dave Hardy (mail) (www):
I think Spengler suggested that the transformation of languages is slowed by the invention of writing (and the printing press that makes it generally available) -- he thought that one reason for the sign language of the Indians was that their unwritten dialects were rapidly changing.

Of course, the written word does have a few drawbacks when the spoken one shifts. We still write "knight" even tho we no longer pronounce it "Knicht."

My later father in law, a linguist who founded the u of Md. classical languages department, said that the rule against splitting infinitives began with 18th century writers who tried (through dictionaries and otherwise) to impose rules on the language. Indeed, they felt that since you can't split infinitives in Latin, you shouldn't split them in English.

Speaking of evolving tongues -- he did a paper, in Spanish, on Spanish, tracing how "loco" came to mean crazy. I forget the details, but there were rules explaining how vulgar Latin (not cusswords, but the way Latin was spoken by the average person circa 500 AD or thereafter) evolved into the romance languages, and he found a vulgar Latin word -- loccho or logo, I forget which -- which was the antecedent of loco.

I asked how we knew the details of vulgar Latin, and he said the primary source was the discovery in the 17th or early 18th century of enormous stocks of letters in a convent. A nun had visited the holy land around the 6th or 7th century, and regularly wrote back to the other sisters. The bundles of letters gathered dust for a thousand years until someone discovered them.
2.28.2006 4:31pm
JLR (mail):
Re Mr. Hardy's remarks on the split infinitive:

The grammatical "rule" to not split an infinitive [yes, I just split one] is a belated one created by Latin-o-phile grammarian Robert Lowth back in the 1760s. Bishop Lowth believed that, since a Latin infinitive cannot be split, an English infinitive should not be split either. But even as early as the beginning of the 20th century (around 1908 or so), Henry Fowler began backing off the split infinitive rule from his key "King's English" usage book that is still an authoritative source today. If my recollection is correct, Fowler argued that it was acceptable in speech in order to eliminate ambiguity, but was more equivocal on the acceptability of splitting infinitives in writing (i.e., Fowler advocated using one's prudence to determine its permissibility, but pointed out that conservative readerships may abhor any and all split infinitives). Many contemporary usagists have moved even further away from that old, unfortunate ban on split infinitives; viz., the watchword is clarity above all in both writing and speech. (Although now updated with new editors, one could always access Fowler's original "King's English" in the library.)

The myth of the proscription on split infinitives that began with Bishop Lowth 240 years ago is unfortunately one that continues to be propagated. In "Star Trek," Captain Kirk may have violated the laws of physics, but he did not violate the rules of grammar.
2.28.2006 5:02pm
Kovarsky (mail):
My personal pet peeve - "disinterested" versus "uninterested." We're not talking "ensure" versus "insure" here, the words have totally different meanings.

Re: split infinitives. They're more or less the poster children of silly formalistic linguistic requirements.

Also, if you want to have a serious epistemic discussion on the matter, etymology doesn't INFORM meaning, it REFLECTS it. A word doesn't have a particular meaning "because" of a particular background; it has a (subjective) meaning - period - as evidenced by a particular background.
2.28.2006 5:52pm
JLR (mail):
Mr. Kovarsky -- silly me, I meant "inform" in a more obsolete, archaic sense of "give character or essence to." We could have a philosophy of language discussion I suppose. But ultimately all definitions are subjective. If there were no humans, there would be no language. So I believe we're in agreement on that.
2.28.2006 5:57pm
DR (mail):
There's an amusing passage in the Life of Macrinus in the late-4th-century Latin work called the Historia Augusta, where the brutal emperor Macrinus claims to be not so bad after all, since he practices "centimation" instead of decimation or "vicensimation" (12.2)
2.28.2006 5:58pm
JLR (mail):
Addendum: or at least, without humans there would be no human languages (there might be primate communications that could be defined as "language" that could also exist without humans teaching them signs et al; but I'm not a primatologist -- I do not know.)
2.28.2006 5:58pm
Kovarsky (mail):

I too think it would be silly to split hairs about the meaning of the word "inform." I intended that remark to come off as a wink-wink satirizing of what I perceived to be your splitting hairs over Prof. Volokh's remark ("etymology isn't the same as meaning").

I certainly wasn't making the sophomoric point that all language is subjective. It's not particularly clear what you meant by "I believe we're in agreement on that," since you seem to be referring to the idea that "if there were no humans, there would be no language." I'm not sure what you're getting at. I used the parenthetical "(subjective)" before the word "meaning" precisely to indicate that the thrust of my comment was not about the word's subjectivity. I just didn't want to be misconstrued as one of those people that thinks words have some meaning that resides out there in the ether.

Thanks for the clarification on chimpanzees though.
2.28.2006 6:32pm
Although its usage is informed by the calculus of the modern world, decimate, nonetheless and irregardless, is but a pale imitation of the robustly and comprehensively destructive ANNIHILATE.

Anyone for the misuse of "literally" and the fading into obscurity of "figuratively"?
3.1.2006 2:47am
JLR (mail):
Mr. Kovarsky,

I need to clarify and apologize for my response to you.

I merely found the original post interesting, and the post caused me to free-associate to the synonym guides that I see in dictionaries about etymology, denotations, and connotations. The fresh example in my mind was the equanimity-composure example. Moreover, I felt like it would be nice to talk about the split infinitive based on Mr. Hardy's post. I also think the ban on split infinitives is a bad rule. As my last paragraph states, "The myth of the proscription on split infinitives that began with Bishop Lowth 240 years ago is unfortunately one that continues to be propagated. In 'Star Trek,' Captain Kirk may have violated the laws of physics, but he did not violate the rules of grammar."

Fundamentally, talking about split infinitives and synonyms is really all I wanted to do. Perhaps in your view those topics are too obscure.

In terms of my quick riposte to you: I have found the disadvantage of comment threads in blogs is that they prize speed over deliberation. Because, if you deliberate to make sure you choose your words carefully, the thread will pass you by. As a result, after rereading my response to you, I realize it came across as snide and petty. That was my mistake. I apologize. Tone is not easy to convey in a comment thread when speed is prized over deliberation. I had someplace to go -- I responded to your post way too quickly.

Such prizing of speed over accuracy reminds me of newspapers taken to an extreme degree.

But on the whole, comment threads are valuable -- they allow for exchanging thoughts and free-association. Comment threads at their best work like Bacon's Essays; "Of Truth," "Of Friendship," "Of the True Greatness of Kingdoms and States," etc., lead the reader towards insights one never would have anticipated when one began reading the given essay. But at their worst, blog comment threads work like "Crossfire." This was a "Crossfire" moment. And I'm sorry.

Bottom line: When one overly prizes the element of quickness, tone is sacrificed for speed. Once again, my apologies.
3.1.2006 9:13am
Kovarsky (mail):

Don't sweat it; if anyone's guilty of accidentally coming off as an ass, it's me. Not that I think you came off as an ass though.

I actually enjoy discussions of split infintives. In fact, our thread sent me back to a David Foster Wallace article in Harpers a few years back. That man explained Wittgenstein in about 3 paragraphs - ubelievable.
3.1.2006 5:38pm
Craig Shergold (mail):
Decimate: to kill every tenth soldier in a renegade army which as been recapture by the Romans. Eeeny meeny miney moe catch a mutineer by the toe. The remaining solders stood there looking at their disembowled comrades and decided whether to submit. The one-in-ten rule presumably was a linear optimization calculation of how many you had to kill to get the remainder to submit, derived from hard experience. The Romans really knew what they were doing.

English's words come from a variety of languages, but the grammar comes from Friese, the language of the Friesians. They used to run the Low Countries up to Denmark. They are now shrunken down to the province of Frieseland in The Netherlands, where they still speak Friese.

i love wikipedia
3.3.2006 12:58am