Top Ten Linguistic Bloopers 1

First, let’s agree that words do and should mean something. The very act of reading this page is an act of faith in the idea that words mean something, and a testimonial to it. And if we can’t agree that words mean something, what’s the point of ever talking at all? If words mean nothing, maybe we should all just shut the hell up for a change. But that’s a whole different discussion.

Word abuse is a blight that impoverishes our language, IMFO. This top ten collection of abused words has no particular order. They’re all culprits. Here’s how you can tell they are parts of a set. Read this as a headline:

Decimated Nauseous Prone Aquiline Somewhat Unique State of the Art Older Laundry List Changed the Course of History, and Could Care Less

Decimate is a word with an exact meaning, inherent in the word itself – TEN – as in, the Decimal System. It comes from the army of ancient Rome, where discipline in the ranks was maintained by decimation. Here’s how it worked. If the troops misbehaved, the officers would line them up, order them to count off, and summarily execute every tenth man. To decimate is to destroy one-tenth of something. That’s what it means. But….

Here are some examples, from books or news stories, of how the word is misunderstood and abused, and how that contributes to debasing the language.


— In Iraq, the “now-decimated Republican Guard….”

One out of ten is not a bad loss, militarily speaking. I’m sure this writer meant “devastated.”

— This is about a forest where wood was obtained, to rebuild Chicago after the catastrophic fire of 1871. It says the fire “indirectly did more to decimate the forest…” than something or other.

The point is, loss of one-tenth of a forest is not, relatively speaking, a great loss. It could have been far worse, and probably was, only this writer doesn’t realize it, and thinks “decimate” means something close to “destroy.”

— Even the great Jonathan Franzen disappoints, by this phrase in The Corrections: “..bearing the names of decimated tribes…”

I think he means something much closer to “tribes that were wiped out, or almost,” which is a much more tragic situation. A tribe that only loses 10% of its members is a tribe in pretty good shape, actually.

— “Most of mainland Europe was decimated.”

In this incident, many more than ten percent of Europeans died. Because of its inaccuracy, the “decimated” is bad enough, but then there’s the “most,” which is worse. What’s being said here is: most of a continent was one-tenth destroyed. And that makes no sense at all.

— From a suspense novel: “The Manning presidency was decimated….”

How do you kill one-tenth of a presidency?

— “the multimillionaire owner who has decimated the Santa Barbara News-Press…

It may be possible to kill one-tenth of a newspaper, but I’d like more evidence. Besides, one-tenth isn’t so bad, compared to how many newspapers are… you should excuse the expression… folding.

Ten is a number, like any other number. It has an immutable meaning. To decimate is to kill one-tenth of a group of people. I know everybody else in the world misuses it, but you and I, being the brilliant scholars we are, ought not to.

About Pat Hartman

Before publishing the two books "Call Someplace Paradise" and "Ghost Town: A Venice California Life", my main project was "Salon: A Journal of Aesthetics. " I wrote extensively for "Scene," a monthly arts and entertainment magazine with a circulation of 25,000. Also proofread, sold ads, put together the music calendar and, for a couple of years, served as editor. Presided over a couple issues of the local NORML newsletter, as well as being featured speaker at chapter meetings. Wrote a complete screenplay; collaborated on another one; worked on a couple of scripts (additional dialog and general brainstorming) with an indie film producer. Booked the talent for a large music festival. Wrote, designed, illustrated and produced various catalogs and brochures for small businesses. Spoke at a high school as a panelist on Women in the Professions; was a featured speaker at the 1991 Women in Libertarianism Conference; presented public programs on "Success in One Lesson" and "The Bloomsbury Group: What's It To Us?" Created the website and wrote many politically-oriented pieces for
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3 Responses to Top Ten Linguistic Bloopers 1

  1. JMarra says:

    Probably people don’t want to use “devastated” or “destroyed” because they carry too much emotion in them. “Decimated” sounds a bit detached and clinical, and you usually don’t add any modifier other than “just” (you rarely if ever hear “completely decimated” or “utterly decimated”–as if the speaker knows that “decimation” isn’t quite as thorough as “devastation”). And we tend to save dev/des for emotional or psychological states, as in “my divorce left me completely devastated.”

  2. Excellent and embarrassing! This article will certainly make me much more alert and careful when using words. I love linguistics;the etymology of words, etc… but I am sure I too have fallen into the trap of using a word now and then that does not reflect the true definition of its roots. Thank you very much.

  3. Pat Hartman says:

    You sweet thing!

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