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Posts Tagged ‘Etymology’

So, the other day I was trying to type the word ‘repentantly’, but kept spelling it incorrectly, apparently, because those beastly red squiggles kept dancing underneath my text.  Turns out I had been typing ‘repentently’, with an extra ‘e’ where there is supposed to be an ‘a’.  But the thing is, I kept staring at the damn thing for the longest time, not, for the life of me, able to figure out my spelling error.  This, of course, pissed me right off, and once I gave in (AKA, allowed Microsoft to provide me with its most bestest suggestions), I started thinking, “Hey, goddamnit, English language, I think I know why you’ve bamboozled me so!”

To wit: It seemed to me that the word ‘repentant’ should end with the -ent suffix, rather than the -ant suffix, because, in my mind, it must be etymologically related to the word ‘penitent’, which, lo and behold, ends with the -ent suffix.  Now, I’m no philologist, nor even a humble linguist, so I don’t actually have any proof of where either of these words comes from, and I don’t particularly feel like consulting ye olde OED for verification.  It may, in fact, be the case that these two words, though somewhat similar in meaning, arrive in our English language-box (you fancier folks out there might say ‘lexicon’, but I’m quite pleased with my choice) via completely different chains of etymological filiation.*  The point is, however, that every now and again, I’m struck by some complete absurdity in this mongrel language of ours.  Part of me wants to sit and revel in that absurdity, but another part – the same part, I suspect, which absolutely MUST have books and other things on his desk at 90-degree angles at all times – is sufficiently unsettled and enraged as to lead to this here mini-rant to which your eyes are currently affixed.

I’m sure that if I sat here long enough, I could think of a multitude of other examples; for now, however, the only other I wish to recall is the word ‘decimate’.  I feel as though I have a vague recollection of either arguing with someone or complaining about this word elsewhere recently, but no matter.  The word makes perfect etymological sense, of course, and it is easy to recognize the Latinate root ‘deci-‘ snuggled cozily in its first half.  But here’s the thing: The word ‘decimate’ means, based on my researches (which, by the way, is a really fun word to pluralize, rather like ‘maths’), “to reduce something by one-tenth its original strength or amount.”  It may even have its roots in an old Roman practice of killing one out of every ten soldiers in a defeated army, which, apart from its general barbarism, is all well and good, and, if words were superheroes, would make for a pretty neat origin story.

My issue with the word, and the reason why I stew in my own English-language-absurdity-despising juices every now and then upon encountering it, is that I WANT it to mean essential the reverse mathematical action (or, perhaps not reverse, but complementary?).  That is, I think that in the general sense we have of the word ‘decimate’, it indicates a very serious diminution, potentially even an evisceration of the strength of a mass or force.  Or, in other words, if I say that something has been ‘decimated’, I’m not fucking around; shit has gotten real.  Because we (or at least the collective ‘we’ of English speakers to whom I am attributing my own personal linguistic idiosyncrasies) imbue the word with such heft, then, I WANT the word ‘decimate’ to mean “to reduce something to one-tenth its original strength.”  To, not by (a nice little argument, by the by, for the power of the humble preposition).  Clearly, reducing something from 100% to 10% is a lot more impressive than reducing something from 100% to 90%.  Plus, I think if the word ‘decimate’ meant “to reduce to…” rather than “to reduce by…”, it would finally match up with the impressive connotation that I think the word actually has in our language-box.

Now, I know, I know, it shouldn’t really be up to me to dictate to a language spoken by millions (actually, probably into the billion range by now, don’t you think?) what its words, its own little language babies, should mean.  But goddamnit, The English Language, can’t you help a brother out?

Any of you out there have similarly irrational outbursts of rage towards your native tongue which you’d like to get off your chest?

*NOTE: As I typed this, those accursed red squiggles appeared once more to leer and mock; but I know ‘filiation’ is a word, and I know I’ve spelled it properly, so whichever entity is responsible for the spell-checking ’round these parts of the internet can fuck right along.

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