I explained last week why I revere dictionaries, but will outline here why I thoroughly dislike them.
Dictionaries are an authority on spellings. I respect that. They also give definitions. This is where I have a problem. Modern dictionaries explain how words are being used, I believe they should provide leadership on how a word should be used. They should provide leadership, not follow the herd.
That is, to a degree, how dictionaries work in other countries. France has the Academie Francaise, which devises rules on French words. English has nothing. But we do have the Oxford English Dictionary, which should, in my opinion, do the job.
The OED tells how words are being used, so gives decimate as a synonym for devastate. I disagree with this. Decimate means to reduce by one in ten. Its derivation is a punishment upon Roman legions. But people now write: a storm decimated the countryside, or: the party was decimated by resignations. The writer doesn’t know what decimate actually means and hasn’t bothered looking it up.
The OED allows this. Indeed, its blog is scathing of “peevish” people (like me) who cling to the “reduce by one in ten” meaning.
I contend that if decimate does not mean reduce by one in ten, we no longer have a word for that process. We have lessened the language. And we already have a word that means devastate. It is: devastate.
There is worse to come. Since 2011, the OED has allowed literally to be “used for emphasis rather than being actually true”. Literally literally doesn’t mean literally any more. You can literally laugh your head off at this.
The OED’s editor says the dictionary’s job is to describe the language the way people use it. I disagree again.
I understand the language must change. It always has. Nice used to mean stupid, awful was worthy of awe. But a meaning change should be accepted after a lengthy period of dominant usage. A timescale of centuries. The OED rushes to record new usages.
If it must list that decimate is used to mean devastate, it should add an asterisk indicating only language vandals say this. It could explain that a commentator who claims a footballer is “literally on fire”, is a buffoon.
A dictionary should lead, not bend to incorrect usage.
Word of the week
A filthy, slobbering person. E.G. “Surely only a slubberdegullion could think ‘decimate’ and ‘devastate’ mean the same thing?”
Read the latest Oh my word! every Saturday in The Courier. Contact me at email@example.com