Friday, November 5, 2010

Decimating Decimation

In a strangely aggressive New Yorker review of Daniel Jonah Goldhagen's book Hitler's Willing Executioners, Clive James went after Goldhagen for his misuse of the word decimation. Indeed Goldhagen's apparent ignorance of the correct usage of decimate was the final evidence James needed to prove that Goldhagen was a hack and that his book was worthless. Decimate of course means reduce by a tenth. If you remember Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus, Larry Olivier decimated his own legions after they had performed poorly in battle, killing every tenth man, so that they'd do better next time. At least I think that happened in the movie, it's been a while...Anyhoo, decimate means reduce by one tenth. But lately of course it's taken on a different meaning and nowadays it only gets used in its technical sense when specifically discussing the history of Ancient Rome. Now it's a synonym for slaughter or destroy or waste. This has been common usage for quite some time in the US and I'd venture to suggest that few people under 40 even know about the older definition. Clive James has always been one of those charming Canute like figures trying to stop the tide of language change but I'm afraid it just isn't possible. I know this because last week I saw this headline in the sniffy and really quite particular New York Times:

Killing For The Mob Then Decimating It In Court

At first I thought this was a story about a mob informant who had gone on a rampage in the courthouse, but it wasn't, it was just about a common snitch and was proof that the new definition is now current everywhere. I imagine that if Daniel Goldhagen used decimate in his new book the New Yorker editors would not let Clive James spend a couple of paragraphs, er, decimating the book because of it.