DECIMATE: to diminish a grouping by one tenth of its numbers

decimateSometimes  words just pop into our heads too quickly and end up being a part of our conversation…even though they are the wrong word.

Such is the case when someone says such things as:

the tornado decimated the tiny Oklahoma town.”

This is especially a mis-statement when an entire community is wiped off the face of the earth.

What the speaker meant to say is

the tornado literally destroyed the tiny Oklahoma town.”

The difference is that to decimate means to remove 1/10 of a town, group, or other accumulation of people or buildings.  For, after all, the word decimate is a Latin word decimatus, past participle of decimare, from decimus tenth, from decem ten. It is from the same root word that gives us decimal.

The decimal numeral system (also called base ten or occasionally denary) has ten as its base. It is the numerical base most widely used by modern civilizations. (Wikipedia)

If we were to chop off one of our fingers it would be proper to say that we had decimated the fingers on our hand.

Or, if we laid off ten of our one hundred employees, we would have decimated our work staff.

That having been said, it is clear that the meaning of the word in contemporary American English is changing.  I consulted Garner’s Modern American Usage in which Bryan Garner says the following about the use of the word decimate.

Originally this word meant “to kill one in every ten,” but this etymological sense, because it’s so uncommon, has been abandoned except in historical texts.  Now decimate generally means “to cause great loss of life; to destroy a large part of….”

“…In fact, though, the word might justifiably be considered a SKUNKED TERM.  Whether you stick to the original one-in-ten meaning or use the extended sense, the word is infected with ambiguity.  And some of your readers will probably be puzzled or bothered.” (p. 229)

So, to get back to my first statement above, it would be wrong for me to say that this is the “wrong” word to use.  Rather, I should acknowledge that it can be used, but that it adds to ambiguity about its meaning.  For me, I prefer to use it correctly to avoid that ambiguity.


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