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shameless pleading

Depredation

None for me, thanks.

Dear Word Detective: In DAR records from the 19th century, it was stated that a relative of mine “suffered depredation.” Was the usage of this word different in the 19th century than we would expect today? What would it have meant then? — Karl Gabosh.

Whoa. Blast from the past. By “DAR,” I’m assuming you mean the Daughters of the American Revolution, an organization founded in 1896 and open to any woman able to prove that an ancestor had some connection to the American Revolution. My maternal grandmother was active in the DAR, and I vaguely remember being enrolled in the CAR (Children of the American Revolution) myself, though I seem to have forgotten the secret handshake. I believe a tenuous genetic connection to Button Gwinnett was my personal ticket to ride, but I’m probably wrong and expect to be corrected by my more attentive relatives shortly.

It’s hard to say exactly what the DAR records mean by “depredation” without knowing more of the context in which the word is used. The American Heritage Dictionary defines “depredation” as meaning “A predatory attack; a raid,” as well as “Damage or loss; ravage,” giving the example “[Carnegie Hall has] withstood the wear and tear of enthusiastic music lovers and the normal depredations of time” (Mechanical Engineering). So I guess the word today can mean anything from a vicious physical attack to some minor wear and tear on your awnings.

To get a better sense of what the DAR might have meant by “depredation,” we’ll hop in the Wayback Machine and take a gander at the roots of the word. “Depredation” first appeared in English in the late 15th century, modeled on the French “depredation” or “depredacion,” which was in turn derived from the Latin “depraedation,” a noun derived from the verb “depraedare,” which means “to plunder.”

The early literal sense of “depredation” in English was, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), “the action of making a prey of; plundering, pillaging, ravaging.” That’s not surprising, because that Latin “depraedare” was formed from the prefix “de” (in this case meaning “thoroughly”) plus “praedari,” to make prey of, formed on “praeda,” meaning “prey” (and also the source of our English word “prey”).

While “depredation” has certainly been used to mean the act of physically attacking something or someone as a predator (another related word) would, or various acts of robbery or plunder, “depredation” has also long been used in a more figurative sense of “destructive actions, processes or ravages,” as of disease, hunger, exposure, etc. Even natural processes of consumption or evaporation have been described as “depredations” (“The Speedy Depredation of Air upon Watery Moisture, and Version of the same into Air, appeareth in … the sudden discharge … of a little Cloud of Breath, or Vapour, from Glass,” Francis Bacon, 1626). “Depredation” has even been used to mean “harsh literary criticism” (“Sterne truly resembled Shakespeare’s Biron, in the extent of his depredations from other writers,” 1798), although the literary world is often not as different from the cheetah chasing the antelope across the veldt as one might imagine.

Given the wide range of literal and figurative uses to which “depredation” has been put, it’s difficult to pin down exactly what the DAR record means by the word. The 19th century didn’t assign a particular meaning to “depredation,” but considering the historical context it probably was being used to mean something worse than a bad book review. My guess is that it referred to “depredations” at least of poverty or other unfortunate circumstance, but possibly (worst-case scenario) actual physical attack, perhaps during the US Civil War or in its aftermath.

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