Literally Decimated & Other Malapropisms: Post-Mother’s-Day Thoughts

E. B. White & friend
E. B. White & friend

Language is a living, ever-evolving organism. The meanings and uses of words change over time. If a word is misused enough over a long-enough period of time, it becomes part of the accepted language.

On a television news report about the Fort McMurray fire in Alberta, the reporter, over an aerial panoramic view of the smoldering remains, declared the city had been decimated. “Decimate” comes from the method Romans employed to discourage mutiny among its legions. If such was suspected among the troops, the soldiers drew lots. One out of ten drew a short straw and was executed. Over time, the word “decimate” came to mean not just to reduce by a tenth, but more broadly, to devastate.

The word “literally” has quite literally evolved to mean figuratively, as in “My head literally exploded when I heard the news.”

Your grocery checkout probably has an express lane for “12 or less” items. It should really have one for “12 or fewer.”

What would Strunk and White think of this? E. B. White is best known as the author of the children’s books Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Webb. He was a long-time staff writer with the New Yorker magazine. His most important work, arguably, was the revision and expansion of The Elements of Style, a concise treatise on good writing created by William Strunk Jr., White’s writing instructor at Cornell University.

Which brings me to my mother. She was a proud member of the grammar police. I’m certain – had her ashes not been dispersed on the Oregon coast – she would twitch in her grave each time “decimate” or “literally’ is used incorrectly. (Not to mention the rampant improper use of apostrophes.) After her retirement from a career in journalism, she would mark up errors in the Oregonian newspaper’s Sunday Northwest magazine – which she used to edit – and send to her former boss.

She was a stay-at-home mom during my growing-up years. Her response to our questions often was, “Look it up.” Lucky for us, we did not have to bicycle to the library; we had a dictionary and the World Book Encyclopedia in the house. (She also told me that when I started buying my socks with my own money, I could walk around in stocking feet. Until then, it was shoes or barefoot.)

Yvonne Rothert obituary - click to enlarge
Yvonne Rothert obituary – click to enlarge

When her youngest child began school, she returned to journalism; a world war and then child rearing had interrupted her career. My father, a steadfast A-type, was opposed, but finally relented after making it clear that he expected the house to be kept clean and in order, and dinner to be ready on time every night. She used much of her earnings to hire help with household chores.

Difficult as it was for her, my mother survived the newsroom transition from her IBM Selectric to writing on a computer terminal. Unlike a typewriter that put it on paper, a wrong computer keystroke would send a work in progress into the electronic void, never to be retrieved. Her obituary highlighted her role in shaping modern journalism.

A final, semi-related, comment, directed to anyone who still thinks it’s cool to smoke: it took my mother two-and-a-half years to die after being diagnosed with lung cancer.