We are the champions, and maybe the dynasts, too

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We've been exuberating lately here in New England over the victory of the Patriots at the Super Bowl. ("Go, Pats!") The word is that the team is now "officially" a "dynasty."

Well, why not? Isn't a team entitled to such a claim when it's won three out of the past four Super Bowls? And why stop there? The Pats have won 60 percent of all the Super Bowls played in the Third Millennium. (Note to self: Remember to sign up for that course in statistics.)

Not to be a fussbudget, but why "dynasty"? However common this usage, equivalent roughly to "perennial champions," is in sports lingo, I haven't found it in any of the several dictionaries I've just checked. Most give two main definitions, as does, for instance, the Compact Oxford: "1. a line of hereditary rulers; 2. a succession of powerful or prominent people from the same family."

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Key elements here are notions of inheritability and of durability over generations, whether we're talking about the Ming Dynasty or the Kennedys or the Rockefellers.

But maybe a generation isn't what it used to be. In the case of professional football, analysts more knowledgeable than I argue that the salary cap and free agency for players make it much harder to hold a winning team together over time. A "generation" may be five years. And so maybe the Patriots are now a dynasty.

Among all the language and grammar issues that prompt readers to write or call into a newspaper, questions of word meanings like this loom surprisingly large. Should we save certain words for certain meanings - like Mom with her sewing scissors and her paper scissors, and woe betide the child who uses one where the other is called for? How do we feel about stretching a word to cover, in this case, not only the guys in silk robes but the guys in helmets and body padding too?

Another D-word that's been getting knocked around lately is "decimate," widely used in sentences like this: "The village was decimated by the tsunami; of its 500 inhabitants, only 73 are known to have survived."

"Decimate" originally meant to kill by lot every 10th man, as of mutineers in the Roman army. Merriam-Webster Online gives another meaning: "to exact a tax of 10 percent from," and cites John Dryden ("poor as a decimated Cavalier"). The Roman Empire has fallen, however, and "decimate" has been widely extended to mean "to kill large numbers of people."

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language identifies this extension as a "usage problem" - i.e., notes that not everyone is happy with it. One of my counterparts at another newspaper has a rule about American Heritage's "usage problems." It is simply: "Don't go there." Any usage the dictionary identifies as a "problem," he avoids.

With "decimate," the tenthness, the fractionality of it all, is plain to see: We know the "dec" root from "decimal" and "decade." If we save the word for imperial Roman mutinies, we'll never get to use it, but in the case of the village hit by the tsunami, we're better off using the word "devastated" instead.

How does the broad vs. narrow argument play out for a sports "dynasty"? The word comes from Greek and is connected to concepts of "lordship." Dictionaries give its root as "dunasthai," a word meaning "be able." The Patriots have shown they are "able." We may be just fine with "dynasty."

This appears with links at: http:// weblogs.csmonitor.com/verbal_energy

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