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February 6, 2015

A friend of mine – Mr Bruce Dessau – has asked what I think of the frequently misused word decimate. It’s most often used to mean “completely destroy”. Of course it didn’t originally mean that. It’s from Latin and meant “to kill one in ten of” – a disciplinary measure used by the Romans to punish soldiers who had failed in their duty. One in every ten soldiers of a cohort (decided by drawing lots) would be clubbed to death.

But when someone today says that that a region has been decimated by warfare, or that the Greek economy has been decimated by EU economic policy, or whatever, they don’t mean that only a tenth of it has been destroyed; they mean that the destruction is pretty much total. Does this matter?

I don’t think it does. A word meaning strictly to destroy one tenth of is so specialised it would almost never need to be used. And decimate is sufficiently similar to words like destroy, demolish, and devastate that it’s quite easy to understand how it moved over to that semantic group.

However, although I feel tolerant over this usage, which is now so standard it can hardly be called a misusage, I do avoid using the word myself. I don’t want to use it in the new usage in case people think I don’t know the etymology; and I can’t use it in the original usage because there is never an occasion to do so.

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  1. Mark Brafield permalink

    A very reasonable position to take, Brandon. I sometimes find that I can be more relaxed about these things too, although I still wince when people – normally journalists – say that matters ‘reached a crescendo’ when, of course, what they mean is that the excitement or whatever reached a peak. A crescendo, as any musician will tell you, is the process of getting louder – it is not the climax itself. I suppose the extreme point of correctness was reached by Kingsley Amis who expressed the view that you should never use a word contrary to its precise etymology. The example I always remember was when he suggested that you should never describe a wooden building as ‘dilapidated’ as the etymology of the word (‘lapis’) meant that it should only be used in relation to stone buildings. A good point, although as much of my professional work nowadays relates to dilapidations claims in relation to commercial buildings, normally built of steel, I quietly drop this rule, if only not to appear a complete smart – arse in front of my clients.

  2. Aikaterini Procopaki permalink

    Speaking of Greece, the Greek equivalent of decimate is apodekatizo (also apodekateuo and apodekateo/apodekato), but I have always thought that the meaning has more to do with paying one tenth in tax (“tithe”), as is Luke 18.12 “I fast twice in the week, I give tithes [apodekato in the original Greek text] of all that I possess”. Anyway, we also use this verb in the sense of devastate, although strict grammarians often warn us against doing so. Thus I too censor myself, just in case one is around.

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