The evolution of living languages
Guest post by Nitay Arbel
The legions of Ancient Rome knew a collective punishment for particularly egregious offenses (such as mutiny) called decimation. One in every ten soldiers, chosen by lot, was to be put to death by his nine comrades.
The other day, somebody on Facebook bemoaned the fact that this or that writer had referred to a people being decimated by a plague — clearly meaning they had been reduced to a handful of survivors, rather than having lost 10% of their original numbers. Predictably, this “abusage” was blamed on the lamentable (no argument there!) state of education nowadays.
This sounds plausible, except for two inconvenient facts:
(1) According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED; full edition, behind a paywall), said “incorrect”, and indisputably ahistorical, meaning of the word has been around in English since the 17th century (look at the examples under (1c))
1c. More generally: to reduce drastically or severely; to destroy, ruin, devastate.
This use has sometimes been criticized on etymological grounds (see, for example, M. West & P. F. Kimber Deskbk. Correct Eng. (1957) 119 and quot. 1944), but is now the most usual sense in standard English.
(2) The above has also, for as long as I remember, been the meaning of gedecimeerd in Dutch, dezimiert in German, and cognates in several other languages. And yes, we did learn about the original meaning in HS Latin class, now almost 40 years ago.
The truth is: a living language, as actually spoken and written by people, is a living organism, and not a static construct (except perhaps in the most formal “static register” reserved for legal documents, laws, and liturgy). In particular, loan words imported from another language may undergo evolution in their meaning that takes them far away from the original.
Consider, for instance, a much more everyday example, “entree”. The original French word means “appetizer”, but in American English it universally means “main course” nowadays! (The original meaning survives in British English.) Does that mean everybody is using the word “wrong”?
And let me give a much more extreme example. The word ‘holocaust’ originally meant a wholly burnt [Temple] offering in Greek: holos=whole, fully; kaustos=burning. Holokaustos is how the Septuagint translates Biblical Hebrew olah, which is hence rendered by the anglicization holocaust in the King James Version.
It is probably not all that surprising that later in the 17th century, downstream from the KJV, we would see figurative use of the word to describe catastrophes, particularly those involving great fires and/or great loss of life. For example, in Milton’s Samson Agonistes (1671):
Like that self-begott’n bird In the Arabian woods embost, That no second knows nor third, And lay e’re while a Holocaust.
For more examples see: http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/87793 which even quotes a reference to “The general holocaust of civilised standards” in a 1940 House of Commons debate.
It is only after the carnage of WWII that the word (particularly capitalized) came to refer specifically to the destruction of the European Jews at the hands of National Socialism. This usage has largely driven out all other meanings, and indeed has been transferred to the deliberate genocide or democide of other groups.[*] (I myself generally use the Hebrew word Shoah [=“catastrophe”].)
The infamous “N-word” is another example. Etymologically, it refers to the Latin word for the color black. However, centuries-long derogatory use for people of Sub-Saharan African ancestry has ensured the word has no other meaning than a racial slur – with the notable exception of “linguistic reappropriation” by black people. “Qu**r” used to mean just “strange”, but nowadays is only used as a derogatory term for homosexual, or (again through reappropriation) as self-identification by a militant subculture among same-sex attracted people.
Such appropriation is itself one of the more amusing mechanisms by which language evolves: people who are being called certain pejoratives and decide to reclaim them as battle flags. “Tory”, “Methodist”, “Yankee”, “Redneck”, “Impressionist”,… all started this way. More recently, many proudly are calling themselves “deplorables”. (Dutch and German even have names for such terms: “geuzennaam” and “Geusenwort”, respectively. I have blogged about this phenomenon before: https://spinstrangenesscharm.wordpress.com/2017/01/20/deplorables-as-a-geuzennaam-linguistic-reappropriation/ )
Another amusing (or exasperating, depending on one’s point of view) mechanism is what Stephen Pinker has termed the “euphemism treadmill”. After a certain euphemism has driven out the original taboo term, it becomes itself taboo and a new “euphemism for the euphemism” needs to be invented, rinse and repeat ad infinitum. Thus, for instance, bog-house or outhouse -> privy -> toilet or lavatory -> bathroom -> restroom, WC, washroom.[**]
When foreign loan words get imported into English and the meaning does get preserved, the spellings may change inexplicably: for instance, the original French bataillon becomes, inexplicably, battalion in English (possibly via Italian battaglione).
Or — English is notorious for this — English pronunciation of the loan word may be mangled to the point native speakers of the source language don’t even recognize the word anymore. The first time somebody tried to tell me she owned a “Cay Shunt” I had no idea she was talking about the Keeshond dog breed (pronounced case hond).
Are all of these accepted contemporary usages “wrong”?
Actually, all of the above are examples of a broader question: whether language standards should be prescriptive (language as it should be spoken/written) or descriptive (language as people actually speak and write it).
French, Hebrew, Dutch, (Peninsular) Spanish, and (to a slightly lesser extent) German are examples of the prescriptive approach. These languages have official, government-sponsored national language academies whose permanent mission it is to set the correct standards. (The Rat for Deutsche Rechtschreibung, literally “Council for German spelling”, has a more narrowly-defined mandate than the others.) Correct usage is whatever the language academy deems correct and publishes in official reference works. From the very beginning, national language academies have been watchful of “contamination” by other living foreign languages (through loan words or loan translations): recently, this has focused particularly on the struggle against franglais in French, Denglish in German, etc. For instance, French, Greek, Hebrew,… language academies have invested great efforts in coining neologisms for all sorts of scientific and technological terms from English. So a computer, software, and a printer in proper French become ordinateur, logiciel, and imprimante, respectively; in modern Hebrew machshev, tochna, and madpeset, respectively; in Standard Modern Greek, ypologisti, logismikou, and ektypotis, respectively. https://spinstrangenesscharm.wordpress.com/2018/08/04/language-registers-diglossia-and-the-greek-language-struggle/
In contrast, English has no such prescriptive body. Contemporary English has two major descriptive standards: the Oxford English Dictionary for UK English and Merriam-Webster for US English. The historical prescriptivist movement for English (spearheaded by, inter alia, the immortal satirist Jonathan Swift in this 1712 pamphlet: http://andromeda.rutgers.edu/~jlynch/Texts/proposal.html ) met with limited success at best. One of its legacy is arguably the UK English spelling of Latin-derived words, where, for example, Elizabethan –ize endings were turned into –ise following the Latin source words. (This development never took place in the USA, and hence the divergence into two competing spelling standards.)
Now where it comes to accommodating foreign loan words, I cannot think of a language more promiscuous than “our magnificent bastard tongue” (as John McWhorter’s book of the origins of the English language is called). There is, after all, no official body out there with the authority to say words like bungalow or coolie are not proper English: once the loan word becomes sufficiently widely used, it will show up in the major dictionaries just a few years later.
Which is better, prescriptivism or descriptivism? I must admit: I find the faddish millennial abusages [sic] of “like”, “awesome”, “literally”,… as grating as the grumpiest old man among you (perhaps precisely because English is not my mother tongue) — but this is the price we pay for the descriptivist tradition of English. Prescriptivist languages like French and German evolve more slowly and elegantly, at least in the formal register — at the expense of a widening gap between formal (particularly written) and informal usage that may eventually reach the point of full diglossia (the coexistence of separate “literary” and “street” languages, like Classical and Vulgar Latin, or Classical and Koine Greek).
“Pick your poison,” as the expression goes. English, for better or worse, has made its choice.
[*] On a related note, post-WW II German avoids certain words and phrases which are perfectly correct German but have forever been tainted by their use in the Third Reich. You would not speak of the Endlösung of a technical or mathematical problem, for instance, or the Sonderbehandlung of special cases, or the Selektion thereof. There even is an entire dictionary devoted to this phenomenon: https://www.perlentaucher.de/buch/thorsten-eitz-georg-stoetzel/woerterbuch-der-vergangenheitsbewaeltigung.html
[**] Relatedly, in Middle Dutch, “kloot” used to mean “globe” or “spherical object”: hence you have Vondel’s “zo draait de wereldkloot” (this is the way the world turns). In modern Dutch, however, “kloot” only means “testicle”, and “klote(n)” is in fact used as an all-purpose expletive much like the F-word in English. Good luck convincing any Dutchman he’s using the word wrong…