The bacteria has been decimated: how much should we care what words used to mean?

Look guys it’s a bacteria!

Much amusement this morning on the Today programme, as John Humphrys shamefacedly confessed to having said “a bacteria” on the previous day’s episode.

Since Humphrys has made such a song and dance about “proper English” in the past – I saw him at an Intelligence Squared event, alongside the even more hidebound Simon Heffer, getting worked up about the difference between “disinterested” and “uninterested” and the use of “less” where they’d rather “fewer” – it was hard not to laugh; hoist with your own petard, there, John? But they brought a classicist, Dr Cressida Ryan, on to the show, to talk about how Latin words come into English, and how they don’t always behave in the same way in the modern language as they did in the dead one. “Stadiums”, “referendums”, and singular “media” are all perfectly fine in English.


Bacteria-as-singular still sounds odd to me, even though it’s clearly not new. But Adam Rutherford, the presenter of BBC Radio 4’s Inside Science and himself a geneticist, has been banging the drum for singular-bacteria for years now, and on his programme Dame Sally Davies, the Chief Medical Officer, was using it a week or so ago. (And, in fact, we ran a story on our science page, not too many years ago, with “a bacteria” in the headline.) These are not the mistakes of the uneducated. Clearly singular-bacteria is acceptable usage even among experts; Rutherford says:

We get complaints every single week about bacteria, some vicious, calling for me to be sacked, others declaring it emblematic of the ‘dumbing down of the BBC’. I write to every single one personally, and explain it is deliberate and not a mistake, which I can demonstrate by the fact that I wrote about the issue in my book. Decimate was the latest, which as you know has been in common usage to mean both “reduce by 10 per cent” and “radically reduce” since the 17th century and continuously since.

For some people, though, etymology matters. The other example Rutherford uses, “decimate”, caught my eye the other day. There’s been a row in the last few days over the Blue Plaque project; Bonnie Greer and two others have left the panel of judges because it’s become a parade of “white men off the telly”. But that’s not all: another of the fallen judges, the architecture critic Gillian Darley, says that the project’s funding has been “decimated”.

If you’re of a certain mindset, that will have made your ears prick up. As Heffer put it in May, in one of his regular harrumphs on the subject:

As every schoolboy used to know, this was a punishment meted out to Roman legions, in which every tenth man was killed. Its correct sense in English, therefore, is the reduction of the strength of a body of people by 10 per cent. Thus it is absurd to say that ‘the workforce was decimated by 20 per cent’. The word decimate is also sometimes wrongly used to mean ‘devastate’ — as in ‘the project will decimate the countryside.’

Heffer is right about one thing: there was a Roman punishment, in which one legionary out of every 10 in a unit was killed. And, yes, the verb for that punishment was “decimāre” (although that also meant “to tithe one tenth”, as has the English word for as long as it has existed, as this Oxford English Dictionary blog points out). But linguists call the belief that the meaning of a word is dictated by what its ancestors meant the “etymological fallacy“. As Michael Rundell, the editor-in-chief of the Macmillan dictionary, says:

…if we followed this logic, the only correct meaning of hysterical (from Latin hystericus, and ultimately Greek hystera, womb) would be its original English sense of ‘suffering from discomfort in the womb’.

As with singular “bacteria”, decimate-as-devastate has a long history of use by expert writers: Charlotte Brontë, HG Wells, Samuel Pepys. And the “devastate” meaning is so widespread that it is hard to use to mean “reduce by one tenth” without further explanation. It’s not that we’re “in danger” of losing that 10-per-cent-cut meaning, it is in all but the most constrained of contexts already lost. Let’s use this newspaper for an example. A search on our site for the word “decimate” returns 908 results. On the first two pages, I found nine uses by our writers of “decimate” to mean “devastate”, and just one to mean “reduce by 10 per cent”. But none of this matters to the sticklers, who think it’s just wrong, even if expert writers and the general public have been using the term for centuries, and that we’re losing our ability to communicate.

(What I always wonder, when people say that, is: when do you have occasion to use a verb that only means “to reduce by one tenth”? Why not just say “reduce by one tenth”? No one is crying out for a verb which means “reduce by one third”, or “reduce by one fifth”. They just say “reduce by one fifth”.)

The thing is, if you want to use “bacterium”, or only use “decimate” to mean “reduce by a tenth”, then you can, of course. I use “bacterium”; I tend not to use “decimate” at all, because it annoys some people if you use it one way, and it sounds pretentious and will tend to be misunderstood if you use it the other. It’s a stylistic preference. But that’s all it is: the alternatives are not ignorant mistakes, they’re simply different choices. The fact that words used to mean something in an ancient dead language does not mean that they have to mean the same thing now.

Which is why it’s especially funny when a real stickler, a real proper-English-is-being-degraded type like Humphrys, employs what his fellow sticklers would call a “mistake”. Prescriptivist, correct thyself; but the singular bacteria is, I’m afraid, here to stay, and its opponents have been decimated.

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