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THE WORD

When in Rome

AFTER A TWO-YEAR holiday from complaints about the word decimate, I thought the debate might be over. At last, the defenders of the one true sense of decimate -- those who think the word should mean, as it did in ancient Rome, "to kill one in 10" -- had been routed, extirpated, quelled, vanquished, silenced.

But no -- they were only resting up for the next skirmish. The decimate dispute is back, most recently in the form of a take-no-prisoners declaration from reader Mort Brown of Holbrook: "To decimate means to reduce by 10 percent, as was done by the Roman legions."

So it does, when you're speaking of the Roman Army, or of others who copied their harsh punishment for mutinous legions. But as an English word, decimate has always had a wider scope. Since the mid-17th century, says the Oxford English Dictionary, the word has also been used to mean "destroy or remove a large proportion of."

Nobody objected, it seems, for more than two centuries; there was the military decimate and the loose, emphatic decimate, each in its proper place. But in 1870, according to Merriam-Webster's Concise Dictionary of English Usage, the popular American language commentator Richard Grant White declared war on the degraded decimate.

White inspired some followers, but the purists met resistance from the start. In an 1885 essay, writer Grant Allen rebuked the "superfine English" crowd, saying there was "surely nothing very wrong or out-of-the-way" in expanding the sense of decimate.

H.W. Fowler, that notable stickler, also condoned the nonclassical usage, writing in Modern English Usage (1926) that it was "natural" to use decimate loosely. Current dictionaries and usage guides agree; decimate no longer means "reduce by 10 percent" -- if it ever did -- except in historical references.

That doesn't mean anything goes, decimation-wise. Since the word implies partial destruction, most usage mavens don't like it as a synonym for "wipe out"; decimation is not devastation. Many, including Fowler, think it sounds odd when applied to single entities: A career or a car might be damaged, but not decimated. And using it with a percentage -- "They decimated 75 percent" -- is just weird.

If you pine for the classical decimate, though, you have a champion in language columnist William Safire. When he first addressed decimate, 25 years ago, he agreed with Fowler: "To limit the word's meaning to 'one-tenth' would be like limiting myriad to its literal '10,000.'" But a few years later, he quietly flip-flopped, warning readers that "unless purists persist, decimate will come to mean 'destroy a large part of.'" In 2004 he reaffirmed his faith: "Decimated means reduced by 10 percent."

But he was right the first time. If etymology governed usage, as he noted, we'd have to stop using myriad for "lots" -- and journal for anything not published daily, and honeymoon for wedding trips shorter than a month. That way lies lunacy.

Besides, we don't especially need a term that means "kill one in 10." As Barbara Wallraff notes in her book "Word Court," you're free to use decimate only in the narrow sense -- but "in that case, you won't be using the word very often."

. . .

WITH A GRAIN OF SALT: Mike Schuster of Foxboro e-mailed to question a Boston.com story that said divers in Milford were searching for a drowned teenager in "the quarry's brackish water."

"Milford is pretty far inland," wrote Schuster, "so I doubt the water in the quarry is brackish."

Not, perhaps, in the original sense of brackish, "somewhat salty." But brackish, like decimate, has a second, figurative sense. It means "spoiled by mixture," says the OED, "as of sea-water with fresh." The earliest example, from 1611, describes an English dialect as "brackish with the mixture of vulgar Irish."

This figurative use, though, can muddy the waters. In everyday use, we don't restrict brackish to water that's somewhat salty; we apply it to any water that's murky or icky, like the nasty soup in a neglected vase of flowers. And that can make it hard to tell exactly what brackish means.

For instance, in a Globe story on the Harbor Islands cleanup several weeks ago, a source said volunteers would have to be "knee-deep in brackish water." That can't mean "salty" -- there's nothing repellent about saltwater -- so it must mean weed-filled, mucky, or otherwise uninviting. Other newspapers sometimes describe water as "brackish and salty" -- a clue that they fear brackish alone might be misunderstood.

Why is it that brackish, plainly a slippery character, attracts no attention from the word police, while the much less dangerous decimate is pursued by blaring sirens? I'm afraid the answer is that our usage worries rarely reflect actual problems with the language. Most of them are trinkets taken at random from a grab bag of hand-me-down prejudices and whims.

E-mail Jan Freeman at freeman@globe.com. For the Word blog, go to boston.com/ideas/brainiac/word.

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