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The headlines scream:
All Blacks decimate the Wallabies.
Wallabies humbled by All Blacks
Wallabies thumped by All Blacks
Maybe I’m “old-school” but I always remember our English teacher at school urged us not to use “decimate” to mean damage or destroy.
The original meaning of Decimate was: to kill one in every ten of (a group of people in Roman legion) as a punishment for the whole group.
I remember seeing an old movie where Roman commanders lined up a defeated Roman legion along a bridge and pushed every tenth soldier off the edge as punishment. Incentive to not be defeated again!
The ABs certainly thumped and humiliated and humbled the Wallabies – but they didn’t decimate them.
I’m sure coach Ewen McKenzie is disappointed with the result but I don’t think he will go as far as decimating the team as punishment.
Now word nerds and dictionary compilers argue about the word decimate.
It’s the ball thrown into an intellectual scrum. Some want to push the language forward so word takes on new meanings. Others want to hold firm and not give ground.
Decimate has taken on a looser meaning – to damage severely.
But some words like decimate are “dangerous” – some readers will “get what you mean” and understand the more modern meaning – others will think you are wrong and uneducated in your choice of words.
When I train Business execs – and journalists – I encourage them to avoid words such as decimate. Especially when there are plenty of other more accurate words available.
I encourage you too – to be aware of what decimate means and to be aware that some members of your audience may hold on to the original meaning of decimate.
I’m a rugby fan (Union and League) who works with words. Lots of the people I help are Rugby fans too and we’ll often use rugby examples to help improve communication.
Another thing I love about Union is how articulate and even “poetic” many writers and commentators are with expression such as:
Piled on a plethora of points
All week the All Blacks have been pilloried by the the NZ media
I must admit that Rugby commentary often “stretches my knowledge” and encourages me to want to find out more abut words. I know basically what pilloried and plethora mean – but where do the words come from?
Here’s an example of an entertaining argument about the “misuse” of the word decimate.
Me, I prefer to just sidestep the “problem word”.
What do you think?
Am I expecting too much of Sports Journalism (especially Rugby coverage) with word choice?
Do Rugby fan readers care about word choice?
Should Ewen Mackenzie really DECIMATE the Wallabies?
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