Monday, July 11, 2005

The Square Ball

I read in someone's blog - sorry I'm not crediting, if it was you, let me know and I'll fix it - about how the word decimate is constantly misused to mean absolute death/destruction when really, the word means the death or destruction of only 1/10th of whatever it is being killed/destroyed. Thus, when a writer writes "The hurricane decimated the town" he or she is actually saying "The hurricane destroyed 1/10th of the town".

Now, I understand the origin of the word and that the prefix "deca" is Greek meaning ten. Even so, when someone has indicated that something has been decimated, I picture complete destruction. Decimation is the succinct, one-word way to paint me a very specific image, and it's a powerful word that indicates the level of violence I would assume is necessary to decimate anything.

Except, now whenever I see that word used, I get yanked out of the story because I think about the difference between what the writer means versus what she has written.

Same thing with the word hopefully. I have no idea what the percentage is but I would guess over half of the US population understands the meaning of the sentence "Hopefully I will get a pony for my birthday." This person has great hopes that she will get a pony. This person is my daughter and this person is going to be disappointed.

But hopefully really means to do something in a hopeful manner, according to So you can wish hopefully or you can pray hopefully or you can work hopefully toward a goal. goes into great detail how, technically, using hopefully as a sentence adverb is incorrect. So now when I see any sentence beginning with hopefully, I come to a full stop.

We all have pet peeves, the misuse of some word or another that drives us crazy. My particular buggaboos include those who refer to the people of Scotland as Scotch (to which I reply "Scotch is a drink. A person from Scotland is either Scots or Scottish.") and the word irregardless. But the longer I write and thus, study the craft of writing, the more words I learn that do not actually mean what we use them to mean. And I'm coming to think this isn't always a good thing.

My point is that sometimes, ignorance may be bliss when it comes to our living language. I'm a firm subscriber in the idea that languages evolve over time. Heck, if they didn't I'd be writing this in some pure form of some ancient language that no longer exists. Especially here in the US, where the Melting Pot concept is demonstrated in all it's rich and interesting glory, different languages come together, blend and bend and become something new, sometimes improved and sometimes not. Sometimes the original intention of a word or phrase becomes blurred when it's adopted for use in speech in a way that was never expected. Thus decimated no longer means only the destruction of one in ten but also entire destruction. In fact, if you were to take a poll, I'll bet the majority of people would choose the second definition as the correct one.

Which leads me to conjecture that if the majority of a particular language speaking group believes that a word means something, isn't it logical to think that the word does mean that very same thing? If I hold up a covered object and say ball and 99 people out of 100 picture a cube-shaped object that is stacked to make a tower, when I remove the cover to reveal a smooth round object that is thrown, who do you think has miscommunicated? Perhaps once upon a time saying ball caused people to form the image of something round, but now it no longer does. I know that I'm correct, but it makes no difference since my word no longer has a shared meaning. I can stand firm in my rightness or I can shrug and accept that when I now say ball, people will be imagining a block.

I think we writers need to choose the words we use carefully. It's downright critical if we have any hope to convey the pictures and stories in our brains properly so they can be seen the way we want them to by the readers.

But sometimes I think we need to feel free to use the word that conveys what we mean even if that word technically isn't correct.

If I have a hero angry enough to decimate an entire tribe of cannibals who ate his best friend, I think using that particular word will clearly convey to the reader that the hero plans to destroy every single cannibal, not whip out his calculator to figure out exactly how many cannibals is 10%.


Anonymous said...

Yeah, but you said it yourself - as long as there are purists and literate readers who know what the words really mean, you'll have readers jerked out of your story if you use a word incorrectly, even if the incorrect meaning is a commonly-made error. And those qho get jerked out of a story as a result of the sort of mistake which could be avoided if the author used a dictionary, or did simple research, etc etc, are the type to avoid that writer in future...

At least, that's how I react when I stumble across these kind of inaccuracies, whether it's an American historical novelist making her English Regency characters eat 'biscuits' for breakfast (*rollseyes*), a Brit using very distinctive UK-English vocabulary in her American characters' dialogue or elementary grammar errors such as badly-punctuated dialogue or 'that's' for 'that was'.

Personally, I like authors who don't under-estimate their readers' intelligence. :)

Lynn M said...

Totally agree with you on the not talking down to the readers thing. I think writers should write as if readers have the intelligence to understand words that aren't necessarily used in day to day language but add a lot of color and specificity to a story. And it's not too much to believe that when a reader stumbles on a word he or she can either figure out meaning based on context or will actually hunt up a dictionary.

I guess my point is that the more I learn what mistakes are out there - what words we are using wrong from a technical standpoint - the harder it is for me to read a story without problems jumping out at me. And since my expectation for all writers to adhere to the technically correct is not reasonable, it's bound to happen.

So I have to wonder if we aren't moved to expand our definitions of words as they shift and change. If most people understand the word "decimate" to mean "to destroy totally", at what point to we throw in the towel and accept that as a legitimate definition?

I don't have the answer. Yes, writers should strive for perfection. I just wonder who defines perfection and who's to say when things are allowed to change and when they must remain the same?

Caro said...

I knew the meaning of decimate, but then I'm married to a man who is big fan of military history, and I let him expound on it from time to time. :) But I see what you're saying. It doesn't bother me, because I understand what the speaker is striving for, but I can see how it might bother some people.

My particular buggaboos include those who refer to the people of Scotland as Scotch

The funny thing is, there was a time when the word "Scotch" was used to refer to the Scottish people. Now, we are talking the sixteenth century, but there's a number of references in correspondence concerning the situation in Scotland that refers to the "Scotch" people or the "Scotch ruler." If you were writing a novel set during that period, it would be appropriate usage, but the fact that it's not appropriate usage now has to be taken into consideration.