Listening to NPR this morning, an interviewee used the word decimate. It was used incorrectly. It wasn't the man's fault, we all use words incorrectly. Either through lack of knowledge, high levels of laziness or a zealous adherence to tradition, we all use words and phrases as they were not meant to be used.
We use words and phrases to describe things, as humans are want to do. Our language separates us from other animals. We represent objects and ideas as symbols written into a medium to be read later by other humans. Over time these symbols change, grow, evolve and in a few hundred, or even a few dozen years can mean something completely different or lose their meaning altogether.
Phrases are zeitgeist and will drop out of use once the need for them has passed, but some linger and become indelible points in the lexicon. We move passed the use of certain transportation, we no longer adhere to archaic laws, we've modernized many agricultural or pre-industrial methods. The phrases and words used to tell other humans about these things passes in time as well.
The problem is that some don't. Some linger but without the original context they tend to be used incorrectly. Take decimate. The word, as agreed to by a selection of usage experts, can mean to destroy but not completely. Its original meaning is to take one tenth; it's in the word itself. Decimatus or decimare in Latin; to kill (or have killed) one tenth. My Latin/Roman research is weak at best but I've heard tell it was a punishment from the ruler of the time to upstart villages that a Roman legion would go in and kill every tenth male. Hence the term.
Now we use the term to mean 'near total destruction.' It could be 'destroy 9/10ths of something' leaving only a small portion. It's generally accepted that a large number of people killed is okay for this usage, but livestock and crops it's not. The hilarity was the phrase "literally decimated."
But that's not the only word that's being misused in our 21st century vocabulary. Without going the obvious route of trying to wrap a single blog post around the use of 'irony,' I've asked some folks what their pet peeves are with English words and uses. Feel free to add yours to the comments.
Literally - Literally has become a punctuation. When you want to express how large an impact an event had or how truly awe inspiring someone's actions were, you include literally to indicate to the listener that was happened really happened. "He literally jumped out of his skin." No, he didn't. Literally has become what super and mega and ultra have been in past decades. It's not enough something has to be good, it has to be best, then super, then mega, etc. etc. Someone can't almost jump out of their skin, or virtually, or nearly, or seem like, they have to literally do it. Let's use literally with actually more often, please.
Fall Down - Redundant. The definition of "fall" is to descend or drop or be lowered or lose status. The converse being the phrase rise up as though you could rise any other direction.
Similarly, Flush Out. I've never seen anyone flush in anything. Also, it does not mean the same thing as flesh out. (I'm looking at you, corporate consultants.)
For all INTENTS and PURPOSES - It's not for all intensive purposes. Though you could technically use the later phrase for a product that you use in emergencies, for all your intensive purposes.
In lieu of - means "instead of." It doesn't mean "in view of" or "in light of." Incorrectly used: In lieu of recent events, the offices will be closed. Correctly used: Please contribute to the fund in lieu of flowers.
A whole nother - I'm extraordinarily guilty of this one. Derived from another whole or a whole other, this surprisingly dates back to the early 1900's, something I thought was rather odd. It always felt like a newish phrase.
There are other words that are just plain misspoken. You could spend days with people, listening to their idiosyncratic turns of phrase; an 'x' here, a dropped 'g' there. After a time, I begin to wonder if the language is evolving again to suit the needs of lazy tongues.
Supposively or supposibly or supposenly - For all concerned, say it with me suh-pose-ED-lee. This sort of relates to 'supposed to' not 'suppose to.' Yes that d-t combo is hard to get your mouth around, but let's give it a shot.
Sufficide to say - Sufficide, from Pfizer. Treats swollen tongue and hurty brain. It's suffice it to say.
Strenth - When sports broadcasters use this, it makes me throw up a little in my mouth. Then I realize they are broadcasters because they were likely athletes, not English majors. Gimme a G!
Then there are those that just plain don't make sense.
Head over heels. Understandably. We are normally walking around with our heads over our heels. Originally said as heels over head to indicate someone doing a cartwheel or somersault.
Next - Corporate lingo.