We had the radio on as we were driving to the ferry this morning, and heard an announcer say that people affected by Colorado’s recent floods were looking for a return to "normalcy." Rick said, "Curse you, Warren G. Harding!"
"A return to normalcy" was one of Harding’s slogans in the 1920 presidential election. World War I and the great flu epidemic were recently over, and Harding’s appeal to people’s longing to go back to the way we were before the war and the flu went a long way toward winning him the election.
Some people, however, reacted to Harding’s use of "normalcy" in 1920 as Rick and I react to it now – did he make it up? Did he really mean "normality?"
Harding had the right of it, though – normalcy has been in dictionaries since 1857. Rick and I know that, but agree that we still don’t like it.
Reactions to word usage and observations about words and language are part of normal (hah) life at Casa Tuel. Rick and I both love word play. I think he may have been launched in this direction by his childhood affection for Walt Kelly’s comic strip Pogo. I’m not sure where it started with me, but as far back as I can remember I have loved puns, spoonerisms, malaprops, mispronunciations, and willful misunderstandings.
At the same time I am a terrible prig about the use of certain words, such as "normalcy," which sounds wrong even if it’s right.
A couple of weeks ago, a woman responded to a thread on Facebook by saying that something "might apply to my father’s cohort, but not to mine." Seeing the word "cohort" being used correctly practically brought tears to my eyes, and I wrote her a little thank you post.
Cohort comes to us from the Roman legions. A cohort was one-tenth of a legion, and by extension a cohort is a discrete group of people. Often you read or hear of someone and his or her "cohorts," as if a single person was a cohort in the sense of buddy or colleague. No. A cohort is a group of people who are in some way connected, even if my Webster’s Ninth says that J. D. Salinger used the word to mean a companion. I spit in the corner regarding your use of cohort, Salinger! No wonder you became a hermit. You probably didn’t want to answer questions from people like me.
You also often hear that a place or group has been "decimated," meaning a great devastation. E.g., "Parts of Colorado were decimated by the recent floods." No, they were not. They may have been destroyed, ruined, washed away, or inundated. They may have been wiped off the map. Many people may have died. None of those things is decimation.
Decimation was a practice in the Roman legions. Yep, back to the Romans again. Should the centurions show an unacceptable lack of discipline or screw up badly in some way, their commander was liable to call for a decimation, in which the troops were divided into groups of ten. Those ten men then had a lottery to pick one of their number to die, and the other nine would then kill him, thereby reducing the size of the legion by what? Yup, one-tenth, or, one cohort. Decimation was supposed to give the centurions the clear understanding that if they did not do as they were told, they might have to kill one of their friends or be killed by their friends.
You can see why the US military does not use decimation. How would it look on the recruiting poster? "You could be one of nine to live through an internal disciplinary action!" I can see the young people clamoring to sign up for that.
What words like cohort, decimation, and centurion tell us for sure about the ancient Romans is that they counted on their fingers.
Then there are my old friends "nauseous" and "nauseated." I know have written of this before, but here we go again: To be nauseated is to have an upset stomach; to be nauseous is to cause nausea in others.
People are still going to say they are nauseous, that they saw Joe Blow and some of his cohorts, and that Colorado was decimated by the floods. These are now accepted usages of these words, and these meanings have made it into the dictionary. Sigh.
So I know I’m not right, and I’m being snobbish, and that hearing what sounds to me like misuse of words may cause me pain and indignation, but does not really matter. I know I have to get over it, but when I hear these words and others being used in what I consider the correct way, it makes me happy.
Conversely, if you say you are nauseous, I am liable to agree with you.