Looking for ten decimates

Ben Zimmer reviews the fifth-edition American Heritage Dictionary, which may or may not be the Last Print Dictionary Ever, but which, like its predecessors, is informed by a Usage Panel, people outside lexicography who work with words for a living. The panel doesn’t overrule the editors, but its members always have something to say. This time:

The often conservative pronouncements of the Usage Panel have never greatly interfered with the descriptive work of AHD’s lexicographers — who, after all, were the first to include the full panoply of vulgar four-letter words in 1969 (complete with careful etymological notes). Over the years, however, the panelists have grown less reactionary, and the notes derived from their opinions are more accepting of informal, not-quite-standard styles.

The new chair of the Usage Panel, Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker, observes in his introductory essay that “resistance is melting” to formerly nettlesome usage points involving such words as “comprise,” “decimate,” “graduate,” “moot,” and “quote.” Pinker examined the survey responses to one item of particular interest to him: the rise of the irregular past-tense verb “snuck” at the expense of the regular “sneaked,” as discussed in his 1999 book, Words and Rules. He found that the shift has been precipitated not so much by a mellowing of the panelists as they grow older but by “an increasing number of younger panelists who have no problem with ‘snuck’.” Thus are innovations snuck into the language.

As for “moot,” it seems to have drifted from “open to debate” to “of no consequence,” nearly a reversal of its original meaning: after all, if it’s of no consequence, it’s barely worth debating, amirite? (And what are the chances that “amirite” merits an entry in AHD 5?) “Moot” isn’t the first word that’s gone that way, either: when I see “peruse” these days, it’s more likely to indicate “glance at perfunctorily” rather than its original “study in great detail.” Explaining how that snuck in is definitely above my pay grade.

I don’t expect AHD 5 to be quite as controversial as Webster’s Third New International, arguably the least-prescriptive dictionary on earth and reviled in some circles for abandoning that responsibility, but I have to figure that someone will find a reason to dislike it. Someone always does.

(Via Language Log.)


  1. Roger Green »

    8 November 2011 · 4:30 am

    The meaning of moot as ‘of no consequence’ was used way back in the 1980s on SNL with Jesse Jackson. “The question is moot” to every question.

  2. Steve B »

    8 November 2011 · 5:52 am

    I’m waiting for the entry “notthattheresanythingwrongwiththat.”

  3. CGHill »

    8 November 2011 · 7:00 am

    I suspect that will appear in its unpronounceable acronym: NTTAWWT. (IYKWIMAITYD.)

  4. fillyjonk »

    8 November 2011 · 1:52 pm

    I still narrow my eyes with disgust when someone uses “decimate” to mean “wholly or largely destroyed.” (Surely, surely there’s another word from Greek or Roman history/mythology that means “wholly or largely destroyed”?) I expect however that I’m standing athwart history shouting “stop” over that one.

    But then, I do tend to be a bit of a vocabulary snob.

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