Revisiting the skunk

I get a Garner's Usage Tip of the Day e-mailed to me (it's a daily entry from Garner's Modern American Usage). It always has some quote about writing or language at the end. Today's was:

Quotation of the Day: "The purity of language is under unrelenting attack from every side -- from professors as well as from politicians, from newspapermen as well as from advertising men, from men of the cloth as well as from men of the sword, and not least from those indulgent compilers of modern dictionaries who propound the suicidal thesis that all usages are equal and all are correct." Arthur Schlesinger Jr., "Politics and the American Language," 43 Am. Scholar 553, 556-57 (Autumn 1974).

"Purity of the language"? English has never been pure, which is part of what makes it such a great, rich tongue. It's also what gives it all its idiosyncrasies. I know I was going on about skunked terms a few weeks ago, but there's a difference between seeking clarity and calling for holding a hard line against any new usage. My point wasn't that one usage is right and the other is wrong, but that if a word has two competing meanings, you have to be careful that using the term is not confusing.

My wife and I were talking about this right after I made that post, and she thought it was silly to say "You can't use the word decimate" to mean devastate because there are some people will read what you wrote and say, "Harumph. Decimate means to kill every 10th man in a Roman legion for mutiny or other transgressions. But here it's just being used to mean destruction. Harumph." She said it doesn't make sense to retire a word that most people use one way; that doing that is catering to a small group of people who get upset but really understand what you are writing anyway.

She convinced me, as far as words like decimate go (that is, ones that have gained widespread acceptance). I still think that a word like enormity, which means "great wickedness" but is now used to mean "wicked big" (OK, fine, really big) shouldn't be used in the second way. Sure, it sounds like enormous, but when talk about the "enormity of the state fair" you are really saying something you don't mean. Decimate at least is in the same general area of destroying or killing things.