I understand my own language, just not how others use it

A few weeks ago, I wrote about a couple of the things that annoyed me in books, and how I’d since discovered that one of these things (the use of the word ‘decimate’ as an alternative to ‘annihilate’) was now, according to every online dictionary I found, not in fact an error.

Today, I’m going to look at another of my pet peeves, and this is another one that I’ve been forced to rethink.

This ‘problem’ shows itself in a sentence like ‘he was one of those people that couldn’t abide poor word-choice.’ Some of you will probably read that and think ‘problem, what problem? Makes total sense.’ But to me, the use of the word ‘that’ rankles.

‘That’ indicates an object‌—‌‘the building that collapsed in the storm’, ‘the car that was rusting on the driveway.’ If the ‘object’ is a person, I’d replace ‘that’ with ‘who’‌—‌‘he who laughs last, laughs longest’, ‘The Man Who Knew Too Much’.

If we use ‘that’ to refer to a person, they become an object, and to me this feels wrong. Every time I come across a sentence like this I find myself angrily replacing ‘that’ with ‘who’ in my mind, and it drags me out of the story. I tell myself that a good editor should have spotted this. Sometimes it occurs in otherwise well written books, and I can’t fathom how this error slipped through the editing and proofreading.

problemBut recently I came across something on Twitter that threw some light on this. It showed me that the ‘error’ I’m seeing is not an error to everyone. I only see it as a problem because of my background.

I’m British. It’s all down to my parents. And their parents. We’re British going back quite a few generations. And so I’ve learnt to speak (and read and write) UK English. To me it’s simply English, but I have to set up my computer to work in UK English, so I suppose that is what I need to call the language I use.

This is different from American English. We all know this. But one thing I didn’t know, until recently (thank you Twitter) is that in America, the use of ‘that’ when referring to people is acceptable. So if you’re an American reading this, and you’ve been wondering what the problem is, now you know. I’m British.

That could explain a lot.

However, I don’t think everyone (on either side of the pond‌—‌which is a stupid word to use to describe an ocean like the Atlantic) realises this. Some books get slammed in reviews for their spelling, but it is all down to these differences. Color and colour, flavor and flavour.

I came across a great way of describing this, in a note at the start of a book by Issy Brooke. It simply said ‘This book is written in British English. It’s like US English but with more vowels.’ If my own books had a lighter tone, I’d steal this line.

But it’s not only the individual words that are different. Mention fanny packs over here in the UK, and there’s a good chance you’ll be met with a blush or a giggle, because to us the word ‘fanny’ has a very different meaning than it does in America. Then there’s what we put in our cars. Over here, we use petrol or diesel, which are liquids, but over in America these liquids are called gas. And over here, we wear our pants next to our skin, not on show for everyone to see. Maybe Krypton studied Britain, so when Superman landed in America he misunderstood their dressing instructions.

The English language has spread far and wide, and wherever it has been adopted as the main language it has also been adapted. From what I understand, there are differences in the way the language is used in Australian and New Zealand, and there are also Indian versions of English. And even in the UK, it is constantly evolving. There are regional variations, and each generation claims its own variations (which is why ‘sick’ can be good, like ‘wicked’).

I try not to let this bother me. On the whole, I don’t care if someone is talking to their ‘mum’ or their ‘mom’ (of even their ‘mam’). I know that a lift is an elevator, and a boot is a trunk. And now that I know about the whole who/that thing, I’ll put this in the same category of ‘things that aren’t correct according to what I was taught, but that’s my problem, not the writer’s.’

And I like the fact that I have only just learnt that I’ve been wrong, because it reminds me that there are likely to be other things I don’t know. I’ve been learning this language for the whole of my life, and I still don’t know everything. Each new thing I read teaches me something more about words.

The next time I come across something that annoys me in a book, it will drag me out of the story. There’s no avoiding that. But rather than getting annoyed, I should take a moment to question where the error lies‌—‌with the author, or with myself. Or maybe it isn’t an error, just a different way of using the language.

After all, how dull would it be if everyone used this thing called the English language in the same way?

‘You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.’

Most people have their own pet annoyances in books. Some people can’t stand anything written in first person. Others get riled when characters in an epic fantasy start using modern day slang. For some, swearing is enough to make them close the book.

walkie-talkie-780306_1280I’ve got a few things that will always pull me out of a story. One of these, in both books and TV/films, is the phrase ‘over and out’. It’s pretty much always used by characters who are professional, using a radio as part of their job, and yet they continually get this wrong. ‘Over and out’ is either a contradiction, or it’s an insult.

Some years ago, I took a VHF Radio Operator’s course (at the time I believe you needed to pass this, with a test to ‘officially’ use a VHF radio), and I can still remember what we were taught. Sometimes, static can make it hard to hear, and so various words are used, almost like punctuation. ‘Over’ and ‘out’ are two of these.

When you’ve finished your sentence or short bit, you say ‘over’ to let the other radio user know that you have finished, and that it’s now their turn to speak‌—‌‘over to you’, or ‘I’m passing the dialogue over’. ‘Out’, on the other hand, is used to bring the conversation to a close,‌—‌‘I’m out of here’. It’s the last thing said in a radio dialogue.

So using both basically means ‘it’s your turn to talk, but I’m not going to listen, because I’m switching this thing off’. It’s the radio equivalent of ‘talk to the hand’. See, either an insult or a mistake.

gladiator-1931077_1280There are other words and phrases that I find annoying, but one of these I have had to reassess. See, language changes, and it looks like I haven’t kept up with this particular word.

That word is ‘decimate’.

It’s likely you believe that word to mean one of two things. The first is how I’ve often seen it used‌—‌if a city is decimated by enemy fire, it is totally destroyed. In this usage, decimate is pretty much synonymous to annihilate.

But this isn’t the classic meaning. There’s a clue in the first three letters. They come from the same root as ‘decimal’, ‘decade’ and all those other words related to the number ten. And, unsurprisingly, the word is related to the Romans. In battles, there was always a winner and a loser, and there was a punishment for losing. The army would be decimated. This meant that one out of every ten soldiers would be killed. Ten percent of the losing army would be sacrificed.

To decimate means to reduce by a tenth. That doesn’t mean total destruction. Kill one out of every ten, and there are still nine to fight another day. If the population of a country is decimated, and there were originally about ten million residents, after this supposedly catastrophic event there are still nine million. A bank account of five thousand is decimated, and it still holds four and a half thousand.

That is the classic definition. But words change over time. Decimate has been around for millennia.

There was a discussion on a forum I occasionally browse, and the meaning of this word came up. Someone included a link to the Merriam-Webster dictionary. This is how it defined ‘decimate’:

1: to select by lot and kill every tenth man of
2: to exact a tax of 10 percent from
3a: to reduce drastically especially in number
3b: to cause great destruction or harm to

The first two definitions confirm my understanding, but the third is closer to total destruction.

I checked out a couple of other dictionaries. First, the Cambridge Dictionary:

– to kill a large number of something, or to reduce something severely

Not even a mention of tenth. Next, the Oxford Dictionary:

1: kill, destroy, or remove a large proportion of
2: kill one in every ten of, as a punishment for the whole group.

And finally, the Collins Dictionary:

1: to decimate something such as a group of people or animals means to destroy a very large number of them
2: to decimate a system or organization means to reduce its size and effectiveness greatly.

Again, no mention of a tenth. Also, in their list of synonyms, Collins has ‘destroy’ and ‘devastate’.

So it appears that the word now, officially, can be used in the same way as a word like annihilate. The people in charge of the ‘official’ meanings of words have decided that decimate now no longer means what it used to.

And that means I can have no argument against all those books that have wound me up. They’ve been using the word in this new meaning, and it’s been my interpretation that has been in error.

I have to accept this, but a part of me doesn’t want to. I know language changes over time, especially with slang (when the Flintsones theme song says ‘we’ll have a gay old time’, a modern interpretation would surely have Fred and Barney sharing one house, and Betty and Wilma in another). But to change a word like ‘decimate’ seems wrong. The two meanings (’destroy a very large number’ and ‘reduce by a tenth’) oppose each other. At least with a word like ‘gay’, homosexual and happy are not contradictory.

But I should really be used to this kind of thing, having worked in the UK education system. It seems that government ministers over here have their own particular way of using words that are removed from their meaning.

school-1019989_640I’ll explain. In UK schools, there are official lesson observations, carried out a few times a year on every teacher. When these observations started up, the teacher was given an overall rating from a choice of four; requires improvement, satisfactory, good, or excellent. As long as you did not ‘require improvement’ you were doing okay. ‘Satisfactory’ meant that you knew what you were doing, and that the kids were learning. There was room for improvement, of course, but you weren’t letting anyone down. You were doing okay. Just as the word ‘satisfactory’ implies.

Those in charge of education always want improvement (at least, in the things they deem as important). They decided that a satisfactory rating was no longer acceptable. Why should students settle for lessons that were merely average? Surely every child deserved the best. And overnight, in UK education, satisfactory now meant ‘not good enough’. If you were rated as satisfactory, you were no longer providing a satisfactory education.

And this came from the same government agency that was calling for all children to be ‘above average’.

We really have problems with our education system in this country.

But I’m getting sidetracked.

Words change their meaning. Decimate can now mean ‘totally destroyed’. I’m not sure how this came about, but it was probably through misuse that simply became accepted over time. But it has been accepted. If I choose to stick to the classical use of the word, I will be left behind.

Language is not static. Just try reading something like the original Chaucer. Even Shakespeare, which is only a few hundred years old, sounds strange to us today. It’s taught almost as poetry, but at the time Shakespeare was writing for the people, in a language that would appeal to as many paying punters as possible (yep, old Bill was an entrepreneur). But over time, words have shifted.

And I need to remember this when I’m reading. If I come across something that sounds wrong, I need to take a moment and consider‌—‌has the author made a mistake, or is my interpretation in error?

inigo_montoyaMaybe if it’s me, I can blame my education. I’m sure my teachers were satisfactory, so they were clearly getting things wrong somewhere. I can’t expect words to remain static. To bring this back to the title of this post (for anyone who’s a fan of The Princess Bride), such a notion would be inconceivable.