Friday, January 25, 2013

Edgar Part 2

(Continued from yesterday)

Most of the evening with Edgar was spent talking about goats, chickens, hogs, fences and gardens. I casually mentioned that I planned to decimate my garden next year because of a surplus of vegetables.

With a concerned look on his face he said, “That seems a little drastic, don’t you think?”

“No, seems about right to me,” I answered with a straight face.

We sat silent for a good thirty seconds while he tried to understand the proposed decimation of my garden.

“…by decimate, I mean of course, to reduce it by one tenth.” I said, breaking the silence.

“Why didn’t you just say you were going to reduce it by one tenth? I thought you were going to plow the whole thing under. By the way, mind if I have another cigar?”

The rest of the evening was spent playing checkers and telling stories. Edgar had lots of great stories about his grandfather and farming in the old days. Not once did he even hint at conspiracy talk. Around ten he got up to leave. He looked over at my laptop and asked if I had an email address. I said, “Sure” and wrote it down for him.

The next day I got this email from him:



Thanks for the hospitality last night. Where do you get those wonderful little cigars?

By the way, I thought it would be rude at the time to bring it up, but I consider your confusing use of the word “decimate” a great example of etymological fallacy.

              Thanks again, Edgar


“An example of what?” I said out loud. Then I looked it up.

The internet says; An etymological fallacy becomes possible when a word has changed its meaning over time. Such changes can include a shift in scope (narrowing or widening of meanings) or of connotation (amelioration or pejoration). In some cases, meanings can also shift completely, so that the etymological meaning has no evident connection to the current meaning.

I wrote back:


Thanks for your note. I also enjoyed our conversation the other night. I will certainly try out that homemade salve you suggested for Dooley’s problem. By the way, I was happy at the thought you may have invested some time to research the word “decimate” to question my contention of the word’s original meaning versus its current use. Challenging a concept is the engine of understanding. Not meaning to be blunt, for me “etymological fallacy” is a fancy excuse for lazy word usage and a justification for ignorance. To suggest it is ok to change the root meaning of a word endangers everyone’s ability to communicate and to understand. For example, labeling this argument as a “fallacy” implies that my adherence to the root meaning of words has an intention to deceive. Fallacy does not mean only to state falsely, but to do so with intent to deceive. Is that what the person who coined this phrase meant when they assigned this label?

Would it be ok if the word “two” eventually came to mean any fractional number between one and three just because enough mathematically challenged people found it too hard to think in terms of fractions?

Speaking succinctly and concretely is something we should all aspire to. A direct and precise language makes conversations more interesting, substitutes facts for bluster and promotes the practice of organized thought. How many times did we hear in last year’s election a politician who said, “even though I said it, I did not mean it the way it was taken.”

Nothing is more important to a society than the language it uses. There would be no society without it. We would all be better off if we spoke with exactness and grace, and if we preserved rather than destroyed the value of our language. (Note the use of the word “destroyed” rather than “decimated”).  



To which he replied:


I assume you looked up and found “etymological fallacy” on your computer just like I did. The internet is just full of crap like this, isn’t it?



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