Say What: Obliterate
Alright. This is another post in my ongoing look at the origins of words in the English language. If you missed the first one, you can read it here.
Today’s word is obliterate.
Obliterate, as the OED so sagely informs us, comes from the Latin obliterare. The word meant, literally, “to erase” and, figuratively, “to cause to be forgotten.”
In English, the verb ‘obliterate’ has several definitions, three of which I want to draw your attention to:
- “To wipe out (a mental impression, memory, feeling, etc.); to do away with, destroy (a quality, characteristic, etc.).”
- “To blot out (anything written, drawn, imprinted, etc.) so as to leave no distinct traces; to erase, delete, efface,” and, “To cause to disappear; to efface (something visible or perceived by the senses).”
- “To destroy completely; to devastate, demolish, or lay waste; to eradicate, annihilate.”
(Note that #3 on that list is actually listed as #4 in the OED’s entry.)
Now, take a moment and think of any time that you can remember where you used the word ‘obliterate’ or read it in a sentence. My guess is that most people will think of an example which falls under definition #3, above.
Personally, I have rarely encountered the word as defined by the first part of #2—the meaning which most closely adheres to its origins.
So, here, I raise a question: Why is it that this last, and most extreme, version of ‘obliterate’ is the one we’re used to seeing?
It came into usage well after the other two definitions I’ve listed had become part of the lexicon. The example given by the OED is a sentence in which the word is used to describe the potential effect of smoking on the brain, and it is dated 1798. Note that in this context ‘obliterate’ refers to something very neutral—the deterioration of a human organ, more specifically as pertaining to humans in general.
Further examples from later time periods begin to take on increasingly more negative tones. The most recent, from 1991, uses ‘obliterate’ to describe the destruction of an entire people by an epidemic of smallpox. Among the other examples are the obliteration of buildings and streets which have fallen victim to arson, along with the description of thousands of graves obliterated. Used in this way, the word becomes a descriptor for destruction on a larger scale or with greater force. In some cases it is the fullest realization of both original definitions, an act that erases all memory and substance, rendering the object nullified.
This is a darker and more ominous form of obliteration, in my opinion.
You’ve probably noticed that I haven’t even begun to answer the question I brought up before. A much deeper look into the evolution of this word’s etymology and how it’s been used over time would be required to come to a reasonable conclusion. I’m sure this sort of research would eventually uncover a logical path to this definition’s current predominance, perhaps by showing a more detailed timeline of when and where it’s been used. That information would prove useful for pinning down the factual history of this particular shade of the word.
I suggest looking at the question through another lens, using the true source of the word as inspiration for inquiry: the people and cultures from which the language was born. Language is more than a form of communication, being also a reflection of the collective minds that have created its laws and structures. This means that our words are formed by human, and thus emotional as well as rational, minds and are influenced by the many subjective qualities inherent in the diversity of humanity.
Words have layers, to put it another way.
What does this suggest about our modern form of the word ‘obliterate’ and its gradual transformation into a signifier of total annihilation?
I have my own ideas about what it might mean, but I’m going to stop short of telling you what they are—after all, your own ideas could be more profound or startling by comparison. And it wouldn’t be much fun if I did all of the thinking for you, right?