Wednesday, 1 December 2010


I am getting slightly fed up with on-line arguments about the meaning of the word 'decimate'

It is a curious word. The original meaning comes from the Roman Army, and refers to the practice of killing 1 in 10 soldiers in cases of mutiny or under-performance, and as such was a supreme example of pour encourager les autres. Although widely used throughout the Roman period, it has been used since. For instance, some parts of the Italian army practised decimation during the First World War. 

However, the word 'decimate' is taking on a whole different meaning. Instead of meaning a removal of 1 in 10, it is now generally used to mean much more than 1 in 10, and sometimes even total obliteration.

Take this page on the BBC about the American Mink:
Inside thsi [sic] beautiful looking creature lurks an indiscriminate killer of birds, fish and small mammals that decimate ground-nesting birds and tackle fish as large as themselves.
I can only assume that the Mink do not count out their victims and kill every tenth one. In this case, it is obviously meant to mean kill many. It is exceptionally easy to find this usage (indeed, it is far more common than the original, 1 in 10 usage).

This leads to a great deal of pedantry, with people insisting that the meaning is the historic one. This is bogus pedantry. For instance, the reference on has the following definitions:

to destroy a great number or proportion of: The populationwas decimated by a plague.
to select by lot and kill every tenth person of.
Obsolete to take a tenth of or from.

As can be seen, the historic form is seen as being obsolete. Merriam Webster more or less agrees (indeed, it does not mention the 'to take a tenth from' meaning. The OED also agrees.

For these reasons, unless you define exactly what you mean, it may be best to avoid the use of 'decimate' if pedants are lurking.

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