Ouch

Last Friday, Doug Fisher of Common Sense Journalism took on the notion that most writers at professional publications these days can get by without copy editors "meddling" with their copy. In the post, he wrote:

Ah ha, you say. But that those (errors) got through a copy desk is proof we can do without them because they aren't catching it anyhow. Well, if anything, I'd suggest is is more proof of how desks have been emasculated so that they no longer can do the job required.

I sent him an e-mail, asking if he meant emaciated and not emasculated. I thought it was a typo incorrectly corrected by a spell check. He wrote back:

I meant emasculate. While the word's origin is to deprive of one's manliness, it has long held the broader meaning of an almost violent cutting off of the object's strength, etc. From one dictionary:  "the opposition emasculated the committee's proposal: weaken, enfeeble, debilitate, erode, undermine, cripple; remove the sting from, pull the teeth out of; informal water down." In fact, in that dictionary, that is the first definition, while the equivalent of castration is second. Depending on the dictionary, they switch positions.

The reason I used it is that its connotation is of swiftness and violence. Emaciation has a longer, slower connotation. I don't think what is being suggested is in any way long or slow.

He's right of course. The OED says emasculate comes from the Latin emasculare, which means "to castrate." And the first example the OED has of emasculate being used to mean "to weaken" is 1607. I didn't know emasculate had any sense besides castration. I henceforth vow to look up any word before I e-mail someone for something like this. Sorry.

Here are a few dictionary entries that illustrate his point about the definitions being switched around. From Merriam-Webster online:

  1. to deprive of strength, vigor, or spirit : weaken.
  2. to deprive of virility or procreative power : castrate.

From American Heritage:

  1. To castrate.
  2. To deprive of strength or vigor; weaken.

From the OED:

  1. To deprive of virility, to castrate (a male person or animal).
  2. a. To deprive of strength and vigour; to weaken, make effeminate and cowardly; to enfeeble, impoverish (language). b. To take the force out of (literary compositions) by removing what is supposed to be indecorous or offensive.