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Two old friends: decimate and refute

February 18, 2015

I see that Peter Oborne has just published a long piece on the website Open Democracy, about why he recently resigned from the Daily Telegraph. His main reason was that, he claimed, the paper allowed advertisers to influence content, but he also complained about staff cuts. In the last 12 months, he says, “the Foreign Desk… has been decimated”.

There we are again. Decimated. But the shade of meaning Oborne uses is midway between the old, literal meaning (to destroy one tenth of) and the new usage (to destroy completely). What Oborne means is that the Foreign Desk is still there, but is operating with considerately reduced personnel; and this is a perfectly acceptable usage. I’m sure Oborne knows the original meaning; this is just a (quite understandable) exaggeration of it.

Later in the piece Oborne quotes a reply from the Telegraph to a letter he wrote accusing them of allowing advertisers to dictate content, and in a snitty reply they wrote “We utterly refute such allegations”. Yet they do not go on to do so. They don’t realise that to refute something is to disprove it. They think that “refute” is a performative verb, like “promise”: just by saying it, you do it. To me, this is a much worse mistake than the  non-literal usage of decimate.

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3 Comments
  1. Καίτη Προκοπάκη permalink

    Dear Mr Robshaw,

    With reference to the comment on “decimate” which I posted, or tried to, some days ago, I can see that it is still awaiting moderation.

    I was wondering if some technical omission on my part is to blame, or moderation normally takes that long.

    Let me take this opportunity to congratulate you on your excellent posts as a rare combination of erudition and broad mindedness.

    Thank you,

    Aikaterini Procopaki

    Athens, Greece

    • I do apologise – I thought I had already approved your comment. Thanks very much for your kind remarks.

      Brandon Robshaw

  2. Sandra in USA permalink

    I enjoyed these thoughts, especially on the word “decimate”. When I hear it in common conversation It is always fun to ask the person speaking “So 10% was taken out?” and watch the confused look on his or her face.

    As an aside, I am American and have just discovered your family’s eating adventure of last summer. I had no idea that England had food rationing partway through the 1950s. Interesting to learn of our cultural differences in the food world in those early decades of the program. I think by the 80s episode there was not such a glaring difference.

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