What’s That Supposed to Mean?

The Roman Forum: Devastated or Decimated?

It was horrible, one TV commentator said, and another agreed that it was horrid.  In the newspaper it was called horrendous, while someone else thought it was horrific.  Yet another sage characterized it as horrifying.

What provoked all this revulsion was… um… I forget what it was exactly, but it was some sort of rude behavior by a celebrity.  What I do remember clearly is that the thought struck me, “All of these words derived from the noun ‘horror’ can’t mean the same thing — there must be distinctions between them.”

So I got my trusty dictionary off the shelf and looked them up.  As happens with depressing frequency, I was proven wrong:  They essentially all do mean the same thing.

Horror, according to Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, is “an overwhelming and painful feeling caused by something shocking, terrifying or revolting; a shuddering fear.”  Horrible is defined as “causing horror; shockingly dreadful.”  That’s pretty similar to the definition of horrendous, which is “shockingly dreadful; horrible.”

Horrid means “such as to cause horror,” while horrific is “causing horror”.  Want to take a guess at the definition of the verb horrify?  That’s correct:  “To cause to feel horror.”  The English language seems to have almost as many words for the concept “shockingly dreadful” as the Inuits have for snow.  (That thing about them having a hundred is a myth, by the way.)

OK, so I’ll admit I was wrong about all those horror derivatives — but there are some similar-sounding words that are not synonyms.  Many of those same TV newscasters think that devastate and decimate mean the same thing.  They’ll tell you, for instance, that “the freak storm decimated over fifty percent of the apple trees in the area.”

Here’s the thing:  decimate shares the same Latin root as decimal, meaning one-tenth.  Back when the Romans were conquering the world, they had a post-battle ritual.  They would line up the surviving enemy soldiers, then they would count off and kill one out of ten.  A tenth of the vanquished army was decimated.  (I’ve wondered if guys toward the end of the line figured out what was happening and said to the guy next to them, “Hey, Jürgen, would you mind trading places with me?”)

Technically, then, to decimate means to destroy a significant portion, but that portion is roughly a tenth.  That figurative orchard of apple trees was devastated (“to lay waste, render desolate”), not decimated.

While we’re at it, let’s clear up the difference between reticent and reluctant.  You might hear that “Congressman So-and-so is reticent to act, for fear of antagonizing his core constituents.”  Sorry, but there is no such thing as a reticent politician.  That word means “disposed to be silent or not to speak freely; reserved.”

Reluctant, on the other hand describes lots of politicians:  “unwilling; disinclined… marked by hesitation or slowness because of unwillingness.”

Oh, and just to backtrack a moment… if you ever hear someone use the word horripilation, don’t assume it’s a synonym for horrendous and horrific and all those others.  Horripilation means “goose bumps”.  Which, come to think of it, could possibly be caused by something horrifying.

6 responses to “What’s That Supposed to Mean?

  1. I love that our room bit of “Ask Tom” has come to life! And glad to be edified on the origins of “decimate” — will share with my children over dinner. (Imagine how thrilled they’ll be!)

    • When you share the origin of “decimate” with the kids over dinner, I think one of them might be thrilled; the other not so much! Thanks for looking in, Bob. And thanks for tolerating my pedantry all those years in the writers’ room.

  2. I wish I knew just one-tenth of the stuff you know, Sir Thomas!

    • Thanks, Reed, but you’re selling yourself short, and giving me too much credit. A lot of these facts aren’t stored in my head; I just spend an inordinate amount of time looking up stuff!

  3. This post reminded me of seeing Kathy Griffin doing standup years ago in Seattle. She told the crowd she’d seen the band R.E.M. on a ferry the day before. “Michael Stipe had his shirt off and It. Was. Horrifying.” She got a huge laugh, then used “horrifying” about 10 more times in an attempt to regain her former glory. We ended up leaving early. (This rambling comment is a bit horrifying, come to think of it!)

    • Yes, I’ve seen comedians lose their grip and start flailing, too. It’s horrifying, all right. Or horrendous, or horrible — your choice.

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