Help Decimate Ignorance

Would the Internet language sticklers please stand down?

The word for the week is “decimate.” As in: “In the first game of Saturday’s double-header, Yankees batters decimated Red Sox pitchers.” Or perhaps: “A stomach virus has decimated the staff this week, so we’re cancelling Friday’s party.”

There are those out there who seem to be unreasonably agitated by the colloquial use of the word. “Decimate,” they insist, “means to kill every tenth soldier! You can’t use the word to mean ‘destroy,’ or ‘devastate,’ or to cause a great deal of death or destruction! It only applies if there’s a 10% reduction.” I don’t feel a need to reproduce one of these irrational tirades against standard usage, but they’re out there. All the time. Sometimes it starts to look like it might just be one cranky guy with a searchbot and an automailer.

Where do folks come up with this crap? Ah: I know. Once upon a time, that’s what the word meant. In Latin. Two thousand years ago. But to insist that it still means only that one thing would be like saying that “cyber” can only refer to control systems; “corn” can only refer to wheat, barley, and rye seeds; and “tweet” is only a sound that birds make.

Despite rumors to the contrary in certain circles, English is still a living language. Words and their meanings change all the time. Sure, we’ve got that old Roman meaning, to kill every tenth soldier as a harsh means of imposing discipline. We need to be careful about taking that too seriously, though: even the Roman sources that mention this punishment tend to be shocked by it, leading me to suspect that it was extremely unusual, and possibly happened so rarely that it existed only as an ultimate threat and not an actual practice. There seem to be only about half a dozen reliable accounts of it in the historical record (…I’ll happily defer to anyone who knows the sources better than me and can elaborate).

But in modern English, the word has another meaning. Which is, clearly: destruction, devastation, great reduction. The OED pegs the first English use of the strict Roman definition to about 1600 (AD). They also show our colloquial, modern sense already in use by 1663 (…and here we’ll ignore the alternative meaning of a 10% tax, which was also current by the mid 1600s – that might cause the Roman-only crowd to have aneurysms). To insist in the face of these facts that only one meaning is valid is…well, it’s absurd.

I’m not sure which looks worse on the “10%” crowd. The persnickety insistence that they possess the correct meaning of a word, or the embarrassing fact that they’ve actually got it wrong.

If you’re a “10-percenter,” you have every right to use the word with only that precise meaning. But on the other hand, you have no right at all to tell others that they can’t use its other, more common, sense freely.

A few quick end notes here:
(1) I had this post ready to go for awhile, so I was taken aback to learn just before I released this that the NPR Ombudsman discussed the same issue only last week. Good for him. Although it seems to me he might have been a little too conciliatory to the “10%” crowd.
(2) I’ve noticed at least one dictionary hedge its bet with decimate, saying that it shouldn’t be used when you’re dealing with precise figures, as in: “After the news, CrassusCorp’s stock value was decimated by nearly 75% in overnight trading.” That’s linguistic cowardice in my opinion, and too much of a nod to the sticklers.
(3) For an interesting explanation of how ignorance sometimes becomes common misbelief, read what Michael Quinion uncovered about decimate. He comes pretty close to declaring it a skunked term, which I don’t think is justified.

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About thebettereditor

Chris holds a BA degree in history from the University of Virginia and a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) Degree in writing from the University of Southern Maine (Stonecoast). He has worked extensively with professional and semi-professional writers and enthusiastic amateurs for about 20 years. He has several years experience in scientific publishing, but has also worked in information technology, insurance, health care, and education (he taught writing at the university level for a number of years). Since 2011, he's also specialized in helping small business meet their writing and editing needs on a budget.
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