Thursday, January 24, 2008

Being a jerk doesn't quite capture it

The other day in our friendly office the topic of decimate came up. I think I must have brought up in the middle of one of my rolling-eye-rants about the LSSU list.

One person in the room had never heard that decimate meant (a long time ago) to destroy one tenth. Everyone else had heard that but didn't care. Everyone agreed that as the word is used now it is understood to mean the destruction of almost all and some had assumed it meant more specifically all but one tenth.

I made the point that almost no one uses it today to mean the destruction of one tenth. And if they did mean it that way who would understand them? (There was an on-and-on-and-ongoing ADS-L thread about evidence that anyone uses it to mean 'destroy one tenth' anymore.)

Well some people clearly do. But only because they want to prove that they know the etymology. But that's being an ass. It's obfuscation in the guise of appearing smart. It's showing that you know enough about an etymology to use an original term but not enough about communication (and people) to realize that others expect that you speak with the intention of being understood. This is similar to insisting on using the word niggardly and holding firm to the meaning of cheap or miserly. Yes it does mean that. But it's clear that it will be misunderstood by many. Many.

So the suggestion arose -- and I like it:

We need a word for the act of using a word in order to prove that you know what it has meant in some contexts -- even tho or more likely because you know that people will misunderstand or take offense.

Any suggestions?


  1. We do need a word for this... good call. The problem is, if we leave it up to you highly trained linguists, we're likely to get a word that is pompously informed by a pertinent etymological history. So instead, how about calling it a "Caseyism."

    (Or, as the word verification oracle is suggesting, cibbiaab?)

  2. Enter me, with my pertinent etymological submission.

    There is extemporaneous, for off the top of the head. How about exetymolizing? And feel free to ask me the proper way to pronounce it.

  3. I'm looking for something catchy. Remember peevologist? It's hasn't really caught on -- but still I love the word and I think Mr. Verb will back me up on it.

    So far I've only come up with a name for a person that does this: dict-head.

  4. How about "provocolution"?

    This reminds me of the guy who insisted to me that he really did interpret all 'double/reinforced' negatives (as in "I'm not saying nothing about the boss") as genuinely canceling out to produce positive statements. All I could do was look at him and say, "Then you must spend large portions of your life hopelessly confused."

  5. I don't even understand what he would mean by saying that he interprets them that way? Was he saying that he really did not understand the speakers intention? Was he claiming (as you rightly note) that he was confused whenever he heard that structure?

    He must have been easy to dupe.

  6. Yes. He was claiming that whenever he heard someone say "I don't know nothing about that deadline" that they did, in fact, mean that they did know about the deadline. It was ridiculous.

  7. Vocabubait (Voh-kab-you-bait)

  8. The already existing word, "Epideictic" (speech designed primarily for rhetorical display; showing off your knowledge of fancy 50-cent words) does some of the work for you, but I don't think it takes care of the second half of your question.

    When a person is speaking epideictically knowing full well that they're going to offend somebody or generally makes waves, then the term you're looking for is "pompous jerk."

  9. I dont' want to seem obtuse, (and I fear I risk appearing dict-atorial) but what does 'niggardly' mean if not 'cheap' or 'miserly'? Help. I hate being misunderstood.

  10. By "holding firm to the meaning of cheap or miserly" I meant that they know how the sound of the word can easily confound a listener but they don't care.

    The issue with niggardly isn't so much that another meaning is becoming a more common intention. Almost anyone that uses the word knows what it means.

    The issue many people have with the word is the sound and how much it resembles and will often be understood to be related to the word nigger -- even tho it's a mere resemblance and there is no relation.

    And of course I do trust that many people use the word without thumbing their nose at the possible confusion -- they use it with only the sense of miserly in mind.

    The questionable use I refer to is by the occasional crass pedant who knows very well that it will likely be misunderstood and who without apology insists on plowing forth with the word while dismissing the sensibilities of listeners who will react to the resemblance.

    It all reminds me of my last weekly quote by Ralph G. Williams. He offered this in one of his wonderful Primo Levi lectures back in my undergraduate days.

    "Good communication is speaking so that others understand when they listen as they are. And listening so you understand when others speak as the are"

  11. Taking eplough's nod to epideictic as a starting point, how about disingenuous epideixis?


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