Thursday, May 13, 2010

'Cause you know, sometimes words have two meanings

I stumbled across something the other day while perusing the dictionary, which is something that I do for fun.

Mr. Laughs, they call me.

Anyway - you know the word "decimate," the word that we use to say "destroy, level, ruin." As in, "The entire block was decimated by the fire, which apparently had burned for several hours before early-rising neighbors called 911."

Or, "The Orioles' hopes of winning the pennant were decimated when the team got off to such a horrible start, but still, true baseball fans stayed loyal and followed the club out of love for the game."

It's a heavy-handed writer who inserts his opinions into ostensibly neutral language examples, but that's how I roll.

If you look at the word decimate, what root word do you see? "Mate," right? No, we're talking about "deci-", meaning related to the word ten. As in December, the twelfth month. (We are no longer counting June and July.)

No one ever said this made any sense, did they?

Here's what Merriam-Webster wants us to know about decimation:

Latin decimatus, past participle of decimare, from decimus tenth, from decem tenDate: 1660

1 : to select by lot and kill every tenth man of
2 : to exact a tax of 10 percent from decimated Cavalier — John Dryden>
3 a : to reduce drastically especially in number decimated the population> b : to cause great destruction or harm to decimated the city> decimated by recession>

If you look a little deeper into all this, it turns out that back in the Roman Empire days, if the army brass got word that there were stirrings of mutiny in the troops, they would line up the soldiers and kill every tenth man by random chance, reducing the size of the group by ten percent.

This is a very effective means of reducing stirrings of mutiny, and at the same time, a real morale-killer. I bet that if your boss had an idea like this, you'd be...decimated.

But I hope not!


Ralph said...

Actually, Roman decimation was even more brutal than you describe. A legion was divided into groups of 10, and each 10 were then forced to draw lots to see which of them would be beaten to death--by the other nine.

If you have any interest in Roman history at all, I highly recommend the "Masters of Rome" series of historical novels by Colleen McCullough, better known as the author of "The Thorn Birds." It's a great intro to an endlessly fascinating period of history and, if you're like other people I know, will lead you to non-fiction authors and deeper into the subject.

Peggy said...

Well, I don't have to worry about my boss. There aren't even 10 people in our office. Most days, it's difficult to find five of us working! LOL