Stupidly, because I might have expected it, page 60 of the Daily Mail March 28th 2014 was an entire page that managed to turn a book review into the author’s fears about the end of the world. Taking his work home with him, John Preston claimed that it often keeps him awake at night, or specifically, worrying about what he will do when the horde of illegal benefit-claiming job-stealing immigrants have given cats TB because we didn’t shoot all the badgers. It’s EU political correctness gone mad.
His biggest worry wasn’t that the world would end – if it was he wouldn’t have got the job at the Mail – but that he wouldn’t be able to cope with the consequences. Being a Daily Mail person he didn’t bother to do anything to solve the problem by learning how to sew or make a fire for example, but by mangling the language a bit further while saying how terrible it all was.
“Let’s say a terrible pandemic has decimated most of the population,” he gushed. I know this is a favourite Daily Mail fantasy, but let’s stop it right there.
Nothing can decimate most of anything for one simple reason: decimate means reducing something by a tenth. Unless John Preston is stratifying the population, which presumably he’d do along the lines of strivers and scroungers, the sentence is gibberish, like most of the rest of the paper.
Given that he wrote ‘most of the population’ he can’t be stratifying in any major sense. Instead, he’s simply conflating his own ignorance and the desire to use big words to imply he’s really clever and making more of a mockery of his newspaper than presumably the editor also intended.
Decimated does not mean devastated. Yes, it sounds similar. But it’s a different word. For a good reason: it means something else. This is what words are for. Meaning something. Not whatever you want them to mean, or you might as well strawberry blancmange.
It was the Romans, as it so often is in our progressive country. I’m not even going near the arsy ‘no, it’s about the practice of executing one man in ten in a mutinous Roman legion.’ I don’t know if it also means that or not, but it’s irrelevant.
Decimus means ten. In Latin. That’s what it means. No more, no less. Ten. So decimate has to mean reduce by a tenth, whether it’s Roman soldiers, survivors of the apocalypse or eggs in a basket. What it doesn’t mean is destroy a lot of.
I blame Tony Blair, a bit but not entirely like the Daily Mail. At least he’d obviously read some Victorian literature when he was at Oxford.
“When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’
’The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’
’The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.”
Through the Looking Glass.