Roman legionary

Does my chin look squashed in this helmet?

Next time you’re scribbling that email, letter or blog post at work, take a minute to consider the true meaning of the words you’re using. A promise to ‘decimate’ your rivals, for example, might have entered modern parlance as a euphemism for coming out on top, but is in fact a threat to drag ten per cent of your colleagues out into the street and butcher them.

‘Decimate’, literally meaning ‘to kill one in ten’, dates from the days of the Roman army, and was a method used by the generals to ensure fear and loyalty in the ranks. Lots of words evolve their usage over time – something known in posher circles as ‘semantic shift’. ‘Awful’, for example, used to mean inspiring wonder. And ‘egregious’, which now suggests something extraordinarily bad, used to mean almost the exact opposite – something remarkably good.

Why should these linguistic evolutions occur? One theory is that although there are around a million words in the English language, most people only use about five thousand, so we make the most of those we have by gradually investing some with multiple (or morphing) meanings. Always best to use a dictionary before making any inadvertent promises of bloodbaths…