Monday, June 28, 2004

Lesson learned

An assistant news editor learns the dictionary definition of decimate. And so does the copy desk.)
I learned recently that this word does not mean what I thought it did.

Had I been paying a bit more attention in Magistra Vernon's ninth-grade Latin class, I would have known that "decimate" comes from the word "decimatus," meaning the killing of every 10th person, a punishment used in the Roman army for mutinous legions.

The Centre Daily Times used this word in a headline recently to refer to the effect of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal on the U.S. military. The torture at the Iraqi prison may have undermined the credibility of the Army, but obviously, the scandal has not killed every 10th U.S. soldier.
But in the process, readers discover some of the hardships of life on the rim.
A reader may never know, for example, that in one story, a reporter had misidentified a local township supervisor, had credited Kurt Vonnegut with writing "Catch-22" and had misspelled "misspelled." Each of those mistakes was caught by a vigilant copy editor who that same night also had to lay out five pages and write a headline for a story about the governor of California without using the name of the actor-turned-politician because "Schwarzenegger" wouldn't fit on one line.


At 12:51 PM, June 29, 2004, Blogger Mike said...

"Catch-22" by Kurt Vonnegut? What the heller was that guy thinking?

OK, I admit it. That was stupid.

At 1:54 PM, June 29, 2004, Blogger Nicole said...

It's OK. You can use this space to get the bad puns out of your system. Maybe that will help us keep them out of headlines.

At 2:42 AM, June 30, 2004, Blogger Nick said...

Do we really have to define "decimate" as if it were the original Latin? In English, doesn't it just mean "destroy a large part of"? That's a dictionary definition -- and it's what all of our readers (beyond the frustrated copy editors and retired English teachers) think it means.

At 5:34 PM, June 30, 2004, Blogger Nicole said...

So you'd advocate "The Abu Ghraib prison scandal has decimated the Army's morale"? It sounds wrong to me.

Here's what the NYT stylebook says: "Originally meant kill every 10th member of a group. But dictionaries agree that it has come to mean destroy or kill a large part of something. Because the notion of one-tenth remains, do not couple decimate with other fractions or percentages: The bomb decimated a quarter of the division.And Bremner: "For mutiny or cowardice, Roman leaders would choose one of every ten soldiers by lot for execution. Thus a legion was decimated, from Latin decem, ten. Decimate has extended to mean to kill a large part of a group or destroy a large part of an area. But don't use it with such adverbs as totally or completely or with a fraction other than one-tenth.

I think the Bremner explanation gets at the reason for my discomfort: To me, decimate is more physical.

But I agree that the assistant news editor was misguided in his correction.

At 7:52 PM, July 01, 2004, Blogger Nick said...

Well, your example sounds wrong because you can't really "decimate" ("to reduce drastically, especially in number" or maybe "destroy a large section of") morale. "Decimate" is like any other word: It's suited for some contexts and not others.

My point, really -- and you seem to agree -- is that "decimate" has no usefulness meaning "to kill every 10th member of," so why not embrace the meaning everyone understands?

At 1:15 AM, July 02, 2004, Blogger Nicole said...

I definitely agree with that. To kill one of every 10 is only one definition.


Post a Comment

<< Home