What words “should” mean and what they actually mean

Steve Finan of the Sunday Post has had a rant about “decimate”. He insists on the “reduce by 10%” meaning.

It’s a word I struggle to care about, so rather than get into the details I’ll point you towards good posts by Jan Freeman and Ben Zimmer.

And here are a few historical facts; you can decide for yourself which, if any, we should care about when deciding how to use the word today:

  • 1600: First recorded use in English of “decimate”, meaning to punish a unit of Roman soldiers by killing 10% of them
  • 1663: First recorded use of “decimate” to mean damage, destroy or remove a large part of – not necessarily 10%
  • 1868: First recorded complaint about the non-10% use of “decimate”

What interests me more than this word is Finan’s beautiful display of the I-know-best attitude to language:

Before anyone points out: “But the dictionary says…” the dictionary is wrong. Dictionaries are great on how words are spelled; they are unreliable on what a word should mean because they insist on giving definitions based on what the public is actually saying rather than what it should be saying.

This is like complaining that maps are unreliable because they insist on showing the actual geography of towns instead of the way the streets should have been laid out. Or that instruction manuals are unreliable because they insist on telling you how devices actually work instead of how they should have been designed.

Dictionaries tell you what words mean. Words are not abstract units of pure meaning but tools that a community uses to communicate. If you want to communicate, you need to use them the way the community does, not the way you think they ought to be used. This isn’t about being correct or incorrect: it’s about success or failure. Insisting on a notion of correctness that others don’t share is a sure route to failure.

And the ways people use words change.

Finan protests that he’s totally OK with language change in principle:

I enjoy seeing the language evolve. I’m no stick-in-the-mud. Awful used to mean full of awe; nice used to mean stupid.

But he tries to explain a logical, objective criterion for which kind of language change is good and which is wrong:

But there is no good reason to change the meaning of decimated. We already have perfectly adequate words to describe damage. If we accept that decimated no longer means reduce by one in 10, we are left without a word for being reduced by a tenth. English will have become less expressive as a means of communication merely because ignorant people have been copying one another.

I have a few problems with this.

Firstly, the awkward, pedantic point (sorry, sorry) that nobody is proposing to change the meaning of “decimated”. The change happened 350 years ago. I suppose Finan could say that he is proposing change by wanting to scrap a long-established meaning, but that wouldn’t quite fit his argument.

Secondly, he thinks words shouldn’t acquire new meanings when we already have other words with those meanings. But when “awful” and “nice” changed (both during the 18th century), their new meanings were already well-covered. Finan ought to damn these new-fangled mistakes, but instead he approves. I suspect that in his heart he doesn’t really think the existence of synonyms is “wasteful and pointless”, as he describes the common usage of “decimate”. I suspect that his argument is just a way to rationalise a pet peeve.

Thirdly, if having a word with a certain meaning is really so useful to people, they’ll keep that meaning alive. But most people don’t go around reducing things by a tenth all that often. That sense of “decimate” has largely fallen into disuse. But in any case, we don’t desperately need a single word when we have several perfectly clear phrases that mean reduce by a tenth, such as “reduce by a tenth”.

If you want to talk about reducing things by a tenth, saying “decimate” may not be effective. So many people understand it the other way that you’re likely to be misunderstood. You can harrumph all you like about being right, but you’ll be wrong. Judged against the only yardstick that matters – making your meaning clear – you’ll fail.

As I said, “decimate” isn’t that interesting. But in Finan’s eyes, the problem isn’t just about losing this one word. The whole language is at risk!

Where shall we end up if we accept the errors people make as new meanings? Soon, everything will mean anything and nothing will also mean anything.

Oh, please.

After centuries, even millennia of change there’s no prospect of everything meaning anything and nothing meaning anything. And there never will be. Most linguistic innovations meet with incomprehension and die a quick death. Some recur but stay on the fringes of the language. A few, if people find them useful, get picked up and become mainstream.

The discipline of market forces, not the edicts of a self-appointed elite, will make sure English remains as expressive as we need it to be.

This history of language is a slow journey with no destination. What matters is that we travel together.

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  • Paul Danon  On March 12, 2016 at 2:34 pm

    Dictionaries are just one person’s (or one group’s) idea of the language. A word’s history is of no use whatsoever in telling us what it means today.

  • Tejaswi  On March 12, 2016 at 2:46 pm

    Shouldn’t it be “reduced TO a tenth” rather than “reduced BY a tenth”? I am not sure, that is what I had always assumed.. but point well-taken…

  • Thomas Kearney  On March 12, 2016 at 4:54 pm

    I propose the word “factitious” be pressed into service to describe this type of argument, since (a) it is (because I say so) a portmanteau of “factual” and “superstitious” and what could be better?; (b) it already has, out of the box, the fairly appropriate meaning of “artificially created”; (c) nobody else is currently using it; and (d) it will be auto-demonstrative in the hands of language peeves.

  • Timothy Gwyn  On March 12, 2016 at 4:57 pm

    I love your comparison to maps and manuals. Bravo!

  • Lev  On March 13, 2016 at 6:18 am

    Are you sure this isn’t tongue-in-cheek? Looks too absurd to be true. Then again, Poe’s law.

  • Jeremy Butterfield  On March 13, 2016 at 10:37 am

    The map analogy is perfect.

  • Lyagushka (Meirav)  On March 13, 2016 at 2:36 pm

    Reblogged this on Meirav's Soapbox and commented:
    Once again someone rails against dictionaries for “giving definitions based on what the public is actually saying rather than what it should be saying.” – this post explains beautifully what’s wrong with this complaint.

  • Penelope Baldwin  On March 13, 2016 at 9:02 pm

    How often have I needed to find a word that means “reduced to/ by a tenth?” That would be zero.


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