A Brief Guide to Getting Pedantic About Language
In one form or another, I write most of the day.
Most writing is wasteful — you write more than survives editing, and you edit more than you keep. A lot of words go spare, so to write them you must first go through the process of reconciling yourself with caring about them less. You don’t write gold, you write ore. Hemingway used to say “Write drunk, edit sober.” Throw out great big scads of verbiage, be bold, be fearless, be sloppy, and then take a thermal lance to the arse of it. Rinse and repeat. Do it faster.
Anything longer than a pamphlet grinds your linguistic pickiness down remarkably fast. Deadlines will finish it off entirely.
“That isn’t strictly correct.”
“That’s common usage. Initially, that meant…”
“Actually, what you mean is…”
All this fades away. Just write. You’ll get new things to worry about, believe me.
“Does it flow? Does it punch? How will it be read? Does it FEEL right?”
And, most importantly, “How soon can I send this without the editor yelling at me?”
In short, writers mostly aren’t pedants about language.
Other things, like red wine, absolutely. But they’re not Yahoo-Answers, Middle-school-English-teacher-with-two-unfinished-novels, old-people-who-were-‘raised properly’, internet-comment-section pedants.
There are still times I can’t help myself. Where I feel The Vein growing.
These are my criteria for indulging the pressure behind my eyes, for being the pissy little OED martinet who raps you over the knuckles and makes you write it out again. This only happens very occasionally, but it does happen.
1. When you’re ruining a unique word
2. When there are plenty of synonyms for the new meaning you could use instead
Meet both of these criteria, and it’s pistols at dawn.
Example: my least favourite ruination of a word is decimation.
Originally a form of military discipline from the Romans, if a unit was guilty of cowardice or sedition in the face of the enemy, the soldiers drew lots. For every ten that drew, one lost. The other nine were required to immediately beat him to death.
So, the full meaning is ‘brutal and selectively self-destructive disciplinary action inflicted on a group in retribution’. That’s wonderfully specific. It’s an action extreme enough to profoundly affect all concerned, to remind them that the corporeal threat from their friends is only slightly less extreme than from their enemies. It makes all concerned collectively complicit in something horrible. It’s the partial and shocking destruction of part of an asset in order to achieve an end from the remainder.
Most of that meaning is retained in the following:
- A farm facing an impending forest fire might have valuable crops near the boundary destroyed to stop the flame front.
- A political cabinet having to blame all their collective treachery on one bad member, who is then damned by all the others in public.
- In the TV show, The Hundred, 300 members of a space colony are flushed into outer space to preserve the oxygen supplies of the remaining members.
- The classic hostage situation where a father is handed a gun, and told to shoot his wife, or the kidnappers will shoot all of them.
There are some words which approach this, but they don’t have the full meaning.
Scapegoat, another brilliant word, catches a piece of it. Sacrifice, too. But these are only pieces, they all miss something. Decimate is its own concept, its own curious piece of history, and one of the endless wrinkles that make language attractive and fulsome and interesting.
Thus, when it’s used to just mean destroy, well, I want you in the sea as soon as possible.
There are some supreme satisfying alternatives if you just mean ‘wreck up the place’. Raze, annihilate, brutalise, liquidate. Depending on the tone you’re trying to strike, throw in all the various methods you might go: brickbatted, stabbed, bastinadoed, liquefied, and so on.
But no-one cares. In the last 24 hours alone, major news outlets have been bringing me these extraordinary images:
“On polling day the Leave campaign reminded us that we were the fifth-largest economy in the world and could look after ourselves. By the following afternoon our currency was sufficiently decimated that we had fallen to sixth, behind France.”
“But warming may have reached a tipping point — and the Adélie penguin population could be decimated.”
“ Garver tweeted on Thursday that coalition forces decimated 120 ISIS vehicles and three vehicle-borne IEDs, and that the Iraqis destroyed another 55 vehicles in strikes that claimed the lives of at least 250 ISIS militants.”
Please just stop. We only have so many words, and it’s less fun writing if you wreck all the good ones just to sound cool.