Thursday, July 17, 2014


Fortuitous: This word means “occurring by chance,” but its resemblance to fortune has given it an adopted sense of “lucky.”

For meticulous adherence to the traditional meaning, use fortuitous only in the sense indicated in this sentence: “His arrival at that moment was fortuitous, because her note had not specified the exact time of her departure.” Nothing in the context qualifies his arrival as fortunate; the sentence merely states that he arrived in time without knowing that he would do so.

The informal meaning is expressed here: “His fortuitous arrival at that very moment enabled him to intercept the incriminating letter.” In this sentence, the time of his appearance is identified as a lucky stroke.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014


Decimate: The word suggests an absolute slaughter, and saying you decimated someone is to say you defeated them absolutely and totally.

However, the literal meaning of this word, as all you lovers of Latin know all too well, is “to reduce by one-tenth,” supposedly from the punitive custom of selecting one out of ten captives by lot and killing those so selected as a show of force against enemies. Reducing by 10% isn't really decimating, is it?