Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Devastating Versus Biceps -- and English Fails

I'm sure that not a soul is ever once going to read the title of this piece and figure out what it's about, and I mean not getting close to the topic.  That includes my younger son Jay, who can usually figure that sort of thing out by now.  In fact, I had no idea how to concoct a title that would be suitable and actually have anything to do with the content.  Oh, well.

So I expect you know that I am a fanatic as far as proper use of English.  I like the language, and I am paid to use it professionally.  It has tens (probably hundreds) of thousands more words than any other language, simply because of the way it has been assembled over a millennium or two as an amalgam of multiple source tongues.  It is very easy to express oneself precisely in English, notwithstanding the number of homonyms and the words with multiple completely disparate meanings.

But that is no excuse whatsoever for ignorant misuse of the words that it does have, and that, friends is today's topic -- a venting about three such examples, spoken and written.

This past few weeks, of course, have seen the news dominated by two major hurricanes and their respective aftermath.  Words, of course, may fail, but when you are a news network describing the devastation of these huge storms, your people may try a bit too hard to come up with new ways to describe what has happened.

Unfortunately, one such word to describe what happened did, indeed, fail.  That would be when we heard, too often, how Harvey or Irma had "decimated" this or that area of Texas or Florida.  Just this morning, I was flipping channels and saw that CNN, which I don't watch, had a headline "Irma Decimates [sic] Florida Keys."  And that's just not possible.  You see, "decimate" does not mean "devastate."

You probably recall, from whatever world history you may have taken back in high school, that back in Roman days, one way that armies punished their conquered foes was "decimation", which simply meant they line up the losing soldiers and killed every tenth one of them (hence, "decimating", from the Latin for "tenth").  Something like that, anyway.

We're not doing that sort of thing any more, and certainly storms aren't doing that consciously.  But you get that in the handed-down meaning of the word to this day, the word "decimate" only applies in a counting situation.  You can devastate an area, or for that matter, anything animate or inanimate, in its physical meaning to destroy, wipe out, cause huge damage.  But decimating is a very different word.

In its contemporary usage, "decimate" applies when something happens to shrink a population or other counted base.  For example, an epidemic can decimate a population, right?  If the Black Plague kills 10% of the people of Europe in the Middle Ages, well, it decimated the population -- and to be honest, it could be 5% or 25% and the word would still apply.  In fact, if you got too high a percentage, "decimate" no longer applies, because the underlying meaning of the word implies that only a portion of the counted elements were killed or destroyed, not a large percentage.

Here's the real example.  A forest fire could decimate the trees in a particular national forest -- but it would not decimate the forest.  See the difference?  A forest is one thing; you can only decimate some counted element, by eliminating a modest percentage of the number of that element.

The second vented complaint is not about word use at all.  The word, of course, is "versus", and pretty much everyone is using it correctly as a connector between two opposing elements.  At least that is OK.  Congratulations, world.

The problem is that a couple years back, for some reason some people started forgetting it was a two-syllable word, and pronouncing it "verse."  I've no idea how that got started, and I don't know how to stop it.  I remember watching the TV show "Hack Your Life" about ways to improvise ("hack") household solutions.  There was a segment each week called "Hack vs. Hack", and one day one of the two hosts pronounced it "verse."  I sent a stern tweet to the show, and it never happened again.  Go figure.

So for all time, it is pronounced "VER-sus", two syllables.  I expect that you already do, and for that I thank you.  Now get out your tweets if you hear someone do the monosyllabic version on TV.

And now that I am embarrassing myself today, I will conclude by a blanket condemnation of all personal trainers and all sportscasters and play-by-play and color commentators.  I would add in those who do the rolling sports news crawl at the bottom of the ESPN screen, but they have at least fixed the problem.

The problem, of course, is the word, or rather non-word, we know as "bicep" (and its related non-words "tricep" and "quadricep")  There is no such word, despite the efforts of all those folks I just condemned blanketly to try to keep using it.  For the record, there is a muscle on your left arm called the left biceps, and on your other arm called the right biceps.  The "s" on the end is no more a plural than is the "s" on the end of "bus", lens" or "crisis."

In fact, the ending "-ceps" is derived from the Latin word for "head", the meaning in this case being "two heads", or two masses of tissue in the muscle.  The muscle's name is biceps brachii, roughly meaning "a two-headed thing on the arm."  Logically, the muscle in the back of each arm, which has three tissue masses, is called the "triceps" (duh), and the one in each leg, which has four such masses, is called the "quadriceps."  Duh again.

But you can't remove the "s", any more than you can ride a "bu", or crack the "len" in your sunglasses, or worry about a "crisi."  So please, guys and gals, let's be real English speakers and kick "bicep" into the abysmal verbal trash can it belongs.  And if your personal trainer ever says "bicep", stop your arm curls and tell him (or her) that if they can't even pronounce body parts properly, you're not sure that they can be trusted to take your money and build up muscles they can't pronounce.

You know, I feel so much better.  I'm betting, though, that you don't.

Copyright 2017 by Robert Sutton
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