Linguistic Subscendence Rears Fully Half of its Big Ugly Head

The following sentence comes from Maureen Callahan’s New York Post article “Elon Musk is a Total Fraud,” dated July 21, 2018:

In March, a Tesla driver was killed while test-driving an auto-piloted Model X, the impact fully decimating half the car.

Let us ignore the passive-evasive “was killed” and let us not speculate why an “auto-piloted” sedan requires a test-driver.  That way the concluding phrase might take center stage in the completeness, so to speak, of its grammatical absurdity: “The impact fully decimating half the car.”

The verb to decimate comes from Roman military practice.  When a legion subdued its enemy, its commanders sometimes ordered the execution of every tenth prisoner before sending the survivors off to slavery.  To decimate means to reduce by one tenth.  It can also sometimes mean to reduce to one tenth, but that is an inadvisable because confusing usage.  Decimation could also be punitive; a legion that fled from battle or otherwise humiliated itself in combat might suffer the decimation of its ranks as chastisement.  No matter: The object of any act of decimation is a group of people.  One person cannot suffer decimation, nor can half a person, nor can anything that is not a group of people.

An automobile, then, cannot suffer decimation.  Still less can half an automobile suffer decimation, even if it were a Tesla.  Decimation, moreover, has no degrees.  The phrase full decimation would therefore be a pleonasm, and not the good kind.  General Maximus either decimates the captured Thracian army or he offers his lenience.  The Thracians would prefer, of course, that he offer his lenience.

It is probable that Callahan, like many people, regards decimation as an exotic synonym for destruction although, in its precision, it is not.  To destroy, equally with to decimate, possesses a Latin origin but it has so thoroughly assimilated itself to English as to appear, basely, Anglo-Saxon.  To decimate, by contrast, retains its slightly foreign, slightly antique, slightly graduate-schoolish aura of sophistication.  Even supposing that Callahan seizes on decimation because she thinks it a synonym of destruction, however, and even supposing that she wants to seem educated in her vocabulary, the problem of the fully destroyed half a car remains to be solved.  Notice that the test-collision to which Callahan refers in her article implicitly left half of that same Tesla, as she might write, fully intact – or rather, intact, omitting any qualification as to degree.  For intactness has no more degrees than decimation.  One wonders how many degrees Callahan boasts.  She should ask for a partial refund on at least half of fully one of them.

20 thoughts on “Linguistic Subscendence Rears Fully Half of its Big Ugly Head

  1. Pingback: Linguistic Subscendence Rears Fully Half of its Ugly Head | @the_arv

  2. Pingback: Linguistic Subscendence Rears Fully Half of its Ugly Head | Reaction Times

  3. While we’re at it, I’ll add a complaint about the slangy “total fraud” in the title. If Musk were a total fraud, we must suppose that even the name Elon Musk is fraudulent. I understand that it is hard to do anything totally, but the word should mean “to a degree than which all higher degrees are almost unimaginable,” and not “to a degree that is higher than you think.” And here, as in most of its slangy usages, total (or totally) is just a synonym for real (really).

    We could add that the deceased was not the “driver” of an “auto-piloted” car, but rather the passenger. The point of Ms. Callahan’s hysteria is that he would not be dead if he had been the driver. But I must admit, language has yet to catch up with the technology. For instance, I would say that my car is “auto-piloted” when I drive it to work, hence the name automobile.

    • I grew up on Pt. Dume in Malibu in walking distance of several beaches. While I was not a surfer, I was nevertheless immersed in the pervasive surfer slang. “Totally” was the all-purpose adverb for the emphasis of anything: “Dude — that wipe-out was, like, totally gnarly!”

      Automobile, like television, is a solecism, combing a Greek part with a Latin part. The Germans reduce automobile to Auto (Das Auto) and the Swedes to bil (bilen — the car). The problem of the solecism vanishes. The American car is probably the foreshortening of carriage — from the erstwhile neologism “horseless carriage.”

      I wonder whether, toward the end of the Nineteenth Century, anyone ever said to someone else, on seeing one of the newfangled road machines, “Dude — that horseless carriage thing is, like, totally gnarly!”

      • A few years back the students were shortening totally to “totes,” and sometimes elongating it to “totes magotes.” I heard the later on an elevator, where it served as a sign of complete agreement. “Man, that geography class is lame.” “Totes magotes!”

        One redeeming feature of the word auto is that it permits some sly drollery about the allure of the auto erotic.

      • Dude, that newfangled thing, like, gives me unbridled joy though, like, the horse is dead and so is its gnarly metaphor, a tree that has spread its branches and fallen into the bonfires of time.

  4. I offer another choice item from the front page of yesterday’s Palladium Times, Oswego’s newspaper of repute since the 1850s. This one is the first sentence of a story, by Matthew Reitz, addressing Oswego County’s “opioid crisis”: “As death and crime continues to pile up as a result of the opioid crisis, local officials are urging the federal government to name Oswego County an area with significant drug-trafficking activity and ramp up law enforcement efforts to combat the problem.”

    As the verb is located directly after the subject, and as the subject is plural, one wonders how Mr. Reitz failed to match the number of the verb to the number of the subject. Maybe because death by itself is singular and crime by itself is singular, Reitz thinks the verb too should be singular. However one explains it, the violation of grammar remains glaring and ought to be an embarrassment for the journal. My wife wants to know whether either death or crime can “pile up.” The phrase “on the rise” would seem to me to be more appropriate than the phrase “to pile up.” The sentence might better begin, “With deaths and crimes on the rise…”

    The sentence also exhibits a basic misunderstanding of causality. The deaths and crimes constitute the crisis; they are not the “result” of the crisis.

    As the poet William Carlos Williams wrote in his epic poem Paterson, “The language! The language!”

  5. In keeping with the spirit of your post, a teacher/staffer in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania bemoans the fact that her district is turning out illiterate H.S. graduates unfit for usefulness in their future stations.

    Money quote:

    Kendra Nichols: “Would you say the Harrisburg School District is in crisis?”

    Staff Member- “Huge. Major. Our students are graduating illiterate, our students are graduating not being able to move on into society, we are not preparing them for the next step. The district themselves are conducting their own internal investigation. I know we were encouraged to pass our students.”

    Credit where credit is due, at least this teacher knows there is a problem in the district. So there’s that. 🙂

    • Definitely. And the taxpayers who supported the state college where the journalists and copy-readers all received their education — they too should get a refund.

      • Where should I go for my refund from grades 7-11? I had to wait until my senior year of high school to receive any assistance to begin remedying the difficulties I had with writing. Two teachers, one who was outside of the district, began to take an interest because they took the time to see something was wrong. It was the hard work in college (ironically) that helped me improve my writing skills immensely even though I still struggle at times.

  6. To whom it may concern,
    What books would you recommend to a beneficiary, for lack of a better word, of the modern education system, who is attempting to right some of its wrongs?

    • I have just seen your comment. Give me until tomorrow about midday to answer your quite serious question.

      There are more bad books than good books, but there are plenty of good books. Any list is bound to be arbitrary, as it is rooted in reading habits that tend to be idiosyncratic. Nevertheless — here are four books that have been central to my understanding of the disaster of modernity:

      The New Science of Politics by Eric Voegelin
      The Scapegoat by Rene Girard
      The Fate of Man in the Modern world by Nicolas Berdyaev
      The Crisis of the Modern world by Rene Guenon

    • I have just discovered your post
      May I recommend the following three works:
      1) The Bible (King James Version);
      2) The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
      (Edward Gibbon);
      3) The French Revolution (Thomas Carlyle)?
      I consider these three to be the greatest prose works in the English language. The variety of the styles of writing contained therein is huge, but you might find them vastly entertaining and informative if you are prepared to do some serious work.

  7. I have to amend my previous statement. Where do my parents go to receive a refund for all the school property taxes they paid?


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