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Mind your language

Ash trees

10 November 2012

9:00 AM

10 November 2012

9:00 AM

Disease, we hear, will decimate ash trees, as the elms were obliterated, and we will see the spoliation of the landscape. I don’t want to be a schoolma’am about decimate. It has, as R.W. Burchfield pointed out in his edition of Fowler, been used for ‘destroy a large proportion’ for as long as it has meant strictly ‘destroy one in ten’. By chance, Burchfield’s chosen illustration of the disputed meaning was: ‘The forest has largely gone, decimated by a forest industry that is just now assaulting the final remains.’

Ash, by the way, is a suitably ancient word, found in about the year 700 to render the Latin fraxinus. It was spelled aesc then, though the pronunciation was the same, and aesc was the name of a runic letter transliterated as æ. In the same way, ac (‘oak’) was the name of the runic letter for a. The thorn giving its name to the letter for th was both the tree and its spine, and the form of the runic letter came to be mistaken by some as a Y, hence the illiterate notion of ‘ye old inn’, intended when it was written as ‘the old inn’. So there we have the oak, ash and thorn embedded in our ancient literature as firmly as Kipling could ever have wished.


Could you say the elms were obliterated? In its origin obliterate is to do with blotting or scraping out a written letter. After 1840 postage stamps were obliterated by a franking mark. But there is a strain of the meaning that signifies ‘annihilate, eradicate’. Charles Lamb, in the Regency period, wrote: ‘All that was countryfy’d in the Parks is all but obliterated.’

As for spoliation, it comes to hand when writers reach for an abstract noun for ‘spoiling’. There is an old confused network of meanings for spoil: ‘plunder’, ‘strip’, and later ‘damage’. In 1563, church authorities were writing of the clergy’s ‘spoil of their glebe or tenths’, meaning income or tithes, while Archbishop Parker in the same year worried about men who had ‘felled or spoiled any woode or timber in any Churche yarde’.

I won’t use decimate, obliterate or spoliation myself, when talking of dead trees, but it is no crime.


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