Chris Walsh (chris_walsh) wrote,
Chris Walsh

Language whinging*

This is how much I can overthink how I speak: I don't like to use the word "decimate" because the meaning it now has doesn't match the actual construction of the word.

"Decimate" originally meant "to kill/destroy/otherwise damage 1 out of 10 of something." Very exact. Troop formations where 1 out of 10 soldiers are killed were decimated. Now "decimate" usually means "to kill/destroy/otherwise damage lots and lots and lots of something." (Now my hyperlinked brain has started singing that song "Lovin' You Lots and Lots" from That Thing You Do! I have an odd brain.) The word now gives a sense of far more damage than it originally did: the Borg decimate Starfleet armadas when the Borg attack the Federation, that sort of thing. (Hi, kradical.) The thing is, though, a stubborn part of me doesn't want to accept that, because that stubborn part figures people will think I mean something I don't mean when I say that! Or, to be more exact, I'm going to use the word with the one person who still thinks of "decimate" in the original sense and who will think I'm stupid for using the wrong word.

I know, words evolve. I'm very aware of that, in fact. I have a similar hangup with the word "hopefully." Strictly speaking, it means "full of hope," which can be a good thing to be, but it's evolved into mainly meaning "This will happen if all goes well." "Hopefully" simply conveys that meaning more quickly than "This will happen if all goes well." Am I going to run into one of the few people who mean "full of hope" when they say "hopefully"? Part of me somehow thinks so. But c'mon, Chris, you know people know what you mean when you say "hopefully" or "decimate." (Or if you say "hopefully decimate," though I can't imagine needing to combine those two words that way. Other words not usually combined? "Metaphorical tickling.")

I have odd hang-ups. Plus I'm an English major, and thus I'm both predisposed and trained to overanalyze stuff. (Dad once said admiringly that he could practically see me diagramming my sentences as I spoke.) The point is, I sometimes overthink what I'm saying. It's partly why I trip over my tongue. But, hey, thinking about that yielded a more substantial post than my last one. I must be waking up.

* I love the word "whinging." A word with a completely different source than the word "whining," but they evolved into meaning almost the same thing. Strangely elegant.
Tags: language

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