Etymology


Just a few days back, I finished perusing the little grammar book Things Your Grammar Never Told You. It’s an interesting book, and I’ll get around to posting more about its strengths (and of course, its weaknesses), but I have a small qualm for the time being.

On page 54, Scharton and Neulieb talk about usage and shifts in meaning, specifically mentioning the word decimate:

Sometimes confusion about a word’s denotation occurs when people use the word in a more general sense than its original meaning warrants. Generalized use can stretch a word’s meaning until it sags like an old sweatshirt, comfortably covering more and more, revealing less and less, and doing its job in a particularly unattractive way. […] As far as some political writers are concerned, the verb decimate means “to reduce drastically.” Decimate, which is related to the word decimal, means “to eliminate one in ten.”

Later, in a glossary of usage, there is an entry for decimate, annihilate:

Note that the Latin root, deci-, is the same as in decimal, a system of numbers based on ten. Decimate means to “reduce by ten percent”; it refers to the bloody practice of slaughtering one captured soldier in ten. That’s bad but not as bad as annihilating, that is, wiping out everyone.

I was, to say the least, disappointed at seeing this.

The truth, of course, is that decimate does not merely mean “to take one out of ten,” and it very frequently means “to reduce dramatically.” Moreover, this error is an example of a fallacious appeal to etymology, and linguist Ben Zimmer  gives very convincing evidence about why it should not be defined as such:

Saying that the “real meaning” of decimate is ‘reduce by one-tenth’ aptly illustrates the “etymological fallacy” — the notion that we have to go back to the usage of a bygone era, and perhaps even a different language, to divine the “true” sense of a word. Decimate entered English around 1600, with reference to the Roman army practice. Around 1650, the Earl of Essex tried to revive Roman “decimation” to keep the peace in Ireland, but subsequent use of the word decimate in the “one-tenth” sense invariably referred back to the Roman era. And by 1663 the usage of decimate had already expanded to mean “to destroy or remove a large proportion of,” according to citations collected in the Oxford English Dictionary.

For nearly three and a half centuries, then, virtually every use of the word decimate has been in this extended sense, except when referring to the harsh old Roman practice. And these days such references seem limited to complaints about the word itself.

This error, in my opinion, is indicative of a deeper problem that seems to be entrenched in most grammar texts. Yes, grammar is about rules, tendencies, and to a degree conformity to the standards that your readers  will expect you to have, but it is not about proscriptions and dictums handed down from on high. While I think this text does better than some others (like the highly overrated Elements of Style), its propensity to spout the same old grammatical canards is disheartening. If someone can show me a grammar text that doesn’t do this sort of thing, I would be delighted.

I’ve talked here before about what have been called “word moments” (a phrase which I dearly love for its multiple uses and the clarity of the experience it describes). I just had one of those, and I had to share it so that maybe someone else will have the kind of realization I did.

I’ve been sitting in front of this laptop for a while now trying to pound away from of these blasted assignments, and I glanced over at the newest issue of English Journal, which I just received in the past few days (and which I would much prefer to read instead of doing these useless assignments). For some moment, the analytical part of my mind parsed the latter word in that title in a way it never has before: Jour/nal. My first thought, despite the fact that I don’t speak the language at all, was of the French word jour, “day.” Upon thinking it over further, my mind went to journals of the personal sort, the kind that you write in daily. Even the idea of journalism and dailies (newspapers that print daily) popped into my head.

After these kinds of thoughts, I had to pursue the etymology further to confirm or disconfirm my linguistic hypothesis, and to my surprise, it was confirmed but in a slightly different way – journal does in fact appear to come to us through Old/Anglo-French, although the root itself is Latin, from diurnalis, “daily.” (It is curious to me how the introductory Latin “diu-” sound became the French “jou-,” but then again, I don’t claim to be a linguist, just an interested observer.)

Interestingly enough, I consciously re-parsed the word as journ/al, which I immediately associated with the word adjourn. Turns out that the root and etymological connection are the same.

Okay, now the updates:

  • I signed a contract on Thursday for the school that I’ll be working for in the fall and confirmed that I will be teaching four courses: sophomore English, junior English, senior English, and an elective writing/novels course (although the emphasis for the first semester is more creative writing than research; I might try to incorporate research into it, though). I was also able to see my room, which is surprisingly nice given the class sizes I’ll have and the size/income of the district. (I have a pod of 4 computers at the back of my room, and the teacher’s computer is hooked up to a large TV, which is also connected with a DVD/VCR combo. That’s really good, all things considered.)
  • The same day, I brought home a wagonload – literally – of material to begin preparing over the summer. (I say “literally” because the material filled an actual wagon that one of the teachers had brought to school, which the principal and I took out to my car to unload.) This included the teacher’s editions for all three of the new textbooks that were purchased for the main sections, as well as a great deal of supplementary materials for the American lit text (for junior English), including a dozen or so CDs of software, several little books for writing and other areas, and even a book of lesson plans.
  • Thursday night, the board approved me as a teacher for the fall, so I am good to go there.
  • Finally, the unofficial scores came back on Friday evening for my APT test (see here), and I scored 286 out of 300 (scaled). I only needed 240 to pass, and this was the final step that I needed to take care of to be 9-12 certified. (The 6-8 certification, of course, will be in order once I get these middle school courses completed.

Everything’s working well, and I’ve got a lot of work ahead. (The incoming juniors and seniors have already been told that they’re very behind because of this year of English, so the task to get them caught up is a little daunting.) At least, though, everything is moving forward.