I wish to start by stating that I am not a member of the word police (if such an organisation exists) and if it doesn’t that I’m not advocating we form one. I’d be continually having my collar felt as I’m sure I commit word crimes every time I speak or put fingers to keyboard; bad spellers don’t vote for spelling bees.
However as much as I love the flexibility of the English language and love the way it gets flexed, there are dangers that if we take it beyond its elastic limit it sustains permanent change that we never intended.
Language changes as we change, it’s a fact of English, resisting this generally only ends up making you look like King Canute. But I’d like to make a plea on behalf of the words that have no synonym. These, it would seem to me, are the ones that might need protection or at least someone to speak in their defence.
Though words have meaning expressed in dictionaries if we assign them new meanings (which is a polite way of saying ‘if we habitually misuse them’) the dictionary definition will change. This can be an economic thing, we take words and phrases that had one meaning in one age but are no longer needed so refit them for a new one, eg powder room.
However, other words get redefined bit by bit and we are left with the old word with a new meaning but no word for the old meaning. Amateur, for instance once meant doing something for the love of it, that certainly is its root, but how often do you see it used to mean that? Could you get away with calling someone an amateur and not have it sound insulting on almost every occasion?
I think we have lost the battle with that one, and decimate is going the same way. It means reduce by a tenth but on every occasion I hear it being used it sounds like the speaker means reduce to a tenth. Now if this is majority view this will in time be the meaning of the word, but why I am prepared to get my feel wet is… what do we call reducing by a tenth when we have lost the only word we have to describe it? We already have words that describe almost complete loss, we don’t need another word.
Think the loss of decimate is no loss? Consider this. Unique is unique. It doesn’t mean rare or unusual or scarce. Those words describe at least the possibility of more than one occurence, unique means only one. Except of course if we keep misusing it and it will be lost with no way to quickly sum up the fact there is only one of something left, that what we are seeing we will see nowhere else.
Do spare a thought for the uniqueness of unique next time you use. It’s special so worth keeping for special occasions when it really deserves to get used.