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August 11th, 2004

Decimate / computer mouses or mice?

by Barbara Wallraff

Scott Bain, of Bothell, Wash., writes: “People use the term ‘decimate’ to indicate total destruction, but in truth it means ‘destroy one-tenth of,’ which is very different. The Romans would ‘decimate’ a population as a way of punishing a people in rebellion.”

Dear Scott: “Decimate” did long ago mean “kill one in 10,” and you’re right that the word comes to us from the ancient Romans. Originally, though, the people subject to decimation were mutinous troops in Rome’s own army. As punishment, one soldier in every 10 was selected by lot and put to death.

Nowadays, of course, we don’t have much use for a word with that meaning -- and isn’t that a reason to be glad! Even if decimation, in the “one in 10” sense, does stop short of massacre, it’s an awfully heavy price for people to pay, mutineers or not. A point of reference: Slightly more than 2 percent of American military personnel who served in Vietnam were killed in that notoriously bloody conflict. Only if the number of war dead had increased nearly fivefold would our troops have been literally decimated.

These days “decimate” is usually seen in its extended meaning, in which the word refers to the killing of any sizable proportion of a group. You’re right -- yet again -- that it’s not an all-purpose synonym for “destroy.” There are two potential mistakes to avoid. First, out-and-out contradicting the prefix “deci-” (which means “a tenth,” while its cousin “deca-” means “10”) is bad form. It’s best not to say or write things like “totally decimated” or “75 percent decimated.” Second, “decimation” is killing -- if not human beings, then cattle, a farm crop, something that was living. “The vandals decimated the house” is a misuse, sapping a powerful word of its strength, even if the vandals wrecked exactly one-tenth of the building.

Mario Caiazzi, of Fitchburg, Mass., writes: “How should one refer to the plural of a computer ‘mouse’? For example: ‘All the mouses/mice in our computer classrooms needed replacement.’”

Dear Mario: You’re not the first person to ask me about this. The author and Harvard professor of psychology Steven Pinker gets the question a lot too. In his book “Words and Rules,” Pinker explains why the typical person doesn’t just assume that a computer “mouse” and a field “mouse” have the same plural. But neither does the typical person assume that a computer “mouse” and a field “mouse” have different plurals. So the question keeps coming up. That is, the typical person wonders. Pinker explains brilliantly why that’s the case.

Pinker’s focus is on the way our minds work. But here let’s answer the question. Computers and their associated gadgetry are relatively new, so tradition isn’t much help with this word question. What we really want to know is which plural most literate people are currently using. Online searches demonstrate that “computer mice” is seen far more frequently than “computer mouses,” both on Web sites in general and in the American media cataloged in news databases. On the strength of this evidence, I’ve welcomed “mice” into my house. Are you ready to do the same?

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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