Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Using words the way God intended

I have just finished an article which may go out in an American magazine. To do so I had to face the reality of American spelling, and my editor/wife (who was actually an exchange student in the US high school system - so hopefully has a fighting chance) American grammar. It was quite challenging.

I realise of course that the idea of American spelling is to make words closer to how they sound, but the result is often far more peculiar spelling than I had previously imagined possible. (There was one word, I forget which one, where three of us tried every possible weird or phonetic spelling we could think of. Eventually we gave up and went on line to an American dictionary to get rid of the red underlining that Microsoft Word insists on using even when you ask it to use correct English, or even Australian English.)

Most painful of all however, was that the article required discussing military casualties, and I finally succumbed to the horrible modern journalist speak version of the word 'decimate'.

Decimation was actually the Roman armies practice of sacrificing every tenth man, drawn by lot, as an 'encouragement' to the rest to lift their game. Literally it means exactly what it says - deci being Roman for ten, and decimal counting being in base ten - ten percent.

Unfotunately modern journalists have attached the concept of decimation to massive losses, and more often use it to imply 90% rather than 10%.

Now I started to mention the correct meaning in brackets in the draft of the article, but had to cut it as part of a valiant effort to get total wordage down to a manageable number for the poor editor. It pained me to do so, but I rolled the whole thing up with the spelling issue and took all my medicine at once. Still it left me with a few reflections.

Is this a sample of accepting cultural relativism, or simply of selling out principle's for prospective income? Is my preference for correct use of historical terms noble or pompous? At what point does a term that has been bastardised become so acceptable in it's new form that it is pointless to protest it's original meaning? Is trying to hold back the ongoing development of language a reactionary pedantry? Or at what point does trying to stay up to date with populist usage make youse, kinda sad... you know?

The real issue appears to be that there should still be a distinction between casual chatter and something with the pretense of academic usage. So if such an article is for a newspaper, modern usage is acceptable, but if for a refereed historical journal, unacceptable. (Or am I incorrect and it is acceptable in modern academic usage... particularly American?)

Seeing that this blog is entirely about pointing out fallacies in reasoning, it seems only fair to mention where I am being inconsistent, one might even say hypocritical, in my own viewpoints.

Doesn't solve my confusion though.

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