Monday, July 23, 2007

Literally Exploding and Totally Decimated

A story titled 'Whatever...blah, blah, blah' in my local paper has set me off ranting on the same theme. So here's a few of the expressions from my own Most Hated list:

Decimated: On this morning's telly some chap from a Wildlife park was going on about how Tasmanian Devils, victims of some mysterious face cancer, are being "totally decimated". "Over 50% of the Tasmanian Davil population has been decimated," he went on to say. Decimation, of course, means the destruction of one in ten of whatever you're talking about. The Romans started the fad by executing every tenth man of a disloyal military unit. If the Tassie Devil population has been totally decimated, there must still be 90% of it left. If 50% of it has been decimated, there must be 95% of the total left.

Alternate: as a noun for 'Alternative', as in 'Alternate realities'. I blame the Americans, and especially Bill Gates, for this. 'Alternate' means every second occurence of something, as in 'We flogged the gardener on alternate days'—that is, on every second day. 'Alternative realities' would refer to two or more possible realities; 'alternate realities' would be two realities that occur and recur in turns.

Alternately describes the sequenced way
That day gives way to night which leads to day:
Used otherwise, it tends somewhat to grate.
Is there alternative to alternate?
My first reaction is to answer, Yes—
But then, alternately, I must confess
Each second of the series argues, No:
Between two options, which word's apropos?
Alternatively is the word to use
When, freed from sequence, we may pick and choose.

Literally: just ask Jamie Oliver!

It's literally the bloody pits!
I literally have got the shits -
and if you literally say
that bloody word again today
I'll literally start throwing fits:
I'll go right into literal mode,
to literally* hit the roof -
then, if you need some further proof,
I'll literally explode!**

* a split infinitive: yet another bloody irritating usage!

** Domus Carataci.


Blogger chippy said...

It's all right as long as you don't end a sentence with with. Or begin one with a conjunction. And if I've told you once I've told you a million times, don't exaggerate!


3:07 pm  
Blogger RHE said...

This is the headline from a story about contenders for the Republic presidential nomination in '08:

Former Sen. Thompson’s entry could decimate second tier of ’08 hopefuls

That would leave 9 candidates, I presume, still too many.

I'd add to your list the disappearing distinction between "disinterested" and "uninterested."


11:55 pm  
Blogger Caratacus said...

Don't get me started on'Quality'! Too late:

The attributive use of "quality" as in "quality workmanship" or “quality education” is rejected as vulgar by the great majority of authorities on English usage. The alternative that nobody will object to is "high-quality".

Expressions such as “quality teaching”, “quality programs” and “quality education” create an impression of illiterate vulgarity - the opposite impression, presumably, to that intended. “Quality’ used this way belongs to the language of cheap advertising and back-street hucksters and is redolent of the aggressive marketing of cheap carpets or used cars. The colloquial vulgarity of its effect can be compared to the use of “class” in such expressions as “a class act” and “a class dame”.

What the Authorities say

Many modern dictionaries avoid the issue by not giving it a usage label, being content merely to define the word.

According to A Manual for Writers, by John Matthews Manly and John Arthur Powell (University of Chicago Press, 2nd ed., 1915), "'quality' is grossly misused as an adjective; fortunately the misuse is confined almost entirely to advertisements, where all sorts of violence are done to the language: 'Quality clothes! Built (!) from the most exclusive (!) designs.'"

The next dictionary evidence is the listing in Webster's New International Dictionary, 2nd ed. (1934), which labels it "colloquial, chiefly U.S.".

Chamber's Twentieth Century Dictionary, 1959 edition, calls it "vulgar".

It is attacked by Morton S. Freeman (A Handbook of Problem Words and Phrases, ISI, 1987) and by James Kilpatrick (Fine Print: Reflections on the Writing Art, Andrews and McMeel, 1993), and prohibited by The Globe and Mail Style Book (Penguin, 1995).

Bloomsbury Good Word Guide (Bloomsbury, 1988) and Harper Dictionary of Contemporary Usage (Harper & Row, 1975 & 1985) note that many people object to it.

Nicholas Hudson in Oxford Modern Australian Usage (Oxford, 1996) writes: “...the abstract noun quality used as an adjective meaning ‘of high quality’ tends to be used by people of questionable taste to describe items of dubious quality”.

It is defended only by Theodore Bernstein (Dos, Don'ts, and Maybes of English Usage,
Barnes & Noble, 1977).

- Adapted from


7:39 am  
Blogger chippy said...

The Norwegian education authority has implemented a Quality Reform (kvalitetsreform) see footnote.
The semantic content of the Q term may be subjected to reductio ad absurdum by the following scenario:
A) educational authorities assess their brief
B) they see it's time for some changes
C) so far so good
D) in order to placate/titillate voters and hacks and decorate the CVs of the career politicians involved, changes are called 'educational reform'
E) no one saw any thin ice warning signs
F) at initial think tank meetings, it is suggested that the review of national educational establishments and any subsequent suggestion for change should in no way consider quality in the aims, processes, results or any other factors in the present or proposed system.
G)reductio ad absurdum

PDF (in Norwegian):


3:37 pm  
Blogger Caratacus said...


Egad! That sounds uncannily like the NSW Education Department. Could it be... could it be... that Education authorities all have similar MOs? That politicans (including Education Department in-house politicians) are CV-driven self seekers?

Only slightly relevantly: the newly-appointed Director-General of NSW School Education is a man who has served a prison sentence for heroin dealing. Now there's a message for the youngsters!


3:57 pm  
Blogger RHE said...

You will be please to note that, in puffing Fowler's Modern English Usage, describes it as "Invaluable for those who enjoy quality English." Would Fowler have enjoyed the irony?


10:20 pm  
Blogger Caratacus said...

In my Fowler (2004, rev. R.W. Burchfield) the entry under 'Quality' does not mention the point.

"1 For 'has the defects of his qualities' see HACKNEYED PHRASES.

"2 The corresponding adj. is qualitative, not qualitive."


5:38 am  
Blogger RHE said...

My 1906 Fowler (The King's English) doesn't mention it either. Perhaps it wasn't yet an issue.


5:50 am  
Blogger Caratacus said...

Indignor quandoque bonus dormitat Auceps.


9:07 am  

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