Annoying Misuses of Words

It is possible that I’m the only one who feels this way, but there are a number of words that annoy me. It isn’t the word that really bothers me, it is the fact that people so often use the word incorrectly and nobody even seems to notice. The misuse is so common that it even appears in newspapers and magazines, which means that even the editors missed it.

A single example is the word “decimate” and its various forms. This word is so often misused that it is rare to even see it used correctly.

A recent newspaper article shows how the word is misused. The article was about the huge wildfires that have destroyed so much of Southern California. The article keyed on how fires “have decimated so much of the forest and buildings.” I don’t think they realized that they were actually saying that the destruction wasn’t too bad.

“Decimate” comes from a practice the Romans used. If a military unit was guilty of a major crime, all the men in the unit were gathered together and lots were drawn to select 10% of the men in the unit. The selected men were then executed. The word, ‘decimate’, actually means “to reduce or destroy one-tenth”. The prefix, “deci-” means one-tenth. A decimeter in the metric system is equal to a tenth of a meter.

From the coverage of the fires in southern California, it looks like far more than 10% of the forests, scrub, and buildings are being destroyed, especially in some areas, so these aren’t being decimated. Using ‘decimate’ in this context, meaning wide-spread destruction, would be similar to using ‘decimeter’ to mean “hundreds of kilometers”. It definitely isn’t what the word means and intentional misuse doesn’t change the actual meaning.

Saying that something was decimated when it was actually largely destroyed is actually downplaying the severity of the disaster.

  • Did you realize that decimate referred to only one-tenth?

    • Yes
    • No

What do you think?

7 points

Written by Rex Trulove

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  1. I remember seeing a film in the 1960s called “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”, based very loosely on Gibbon’s famous work. The only scene that made a real impression on me was of a decimation – the soldiers were lined up along the edge of long and very high bridge, and every tenth man was pushed over the edge. One wondered how good they were at counting – did numbers 10, 20, 30, etc know that their number was up?

    There are several misused words that annoy me. One of these is “surreal”; another is “unique”. The latter means “only one”, it does NOT mean “unusual”. Whenever I hear someone saying that something is “very unique” I go a strange shade of puce!

    • I can understand that. It reminds me of needless duplicity, too; close proximity. If something is in proximity, it has to be close, and the other way around. In the US, there are a lot of mismatched words, like ‘halfway between”. If it is halfway, it must be between.

      • My main beef with the misuse of “unique” is that it destroys the meaning of a very useful word. If you want to say that there is only one of something, such as the Grand Canyon, you have a single word that you can for that purpose. However, if you merely think that the word means “unusual”, what do you do when you want to say that there is only one Grand Canyon? You cannot use a single word, and even an expression such as “absolutely unique” does not do the trick – “absolutely unusual” still allows for the existence of more than one!

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