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For 33 years, the little-known Lake Superior State University has been getting an annual PR boost from its list of words that ought to be banished from our language, a list generated from suggestions by members of the public. This year’s list contains a classic complaint — the way that people misuse the word decimate — that the university notes has resulted in word-watchers calling for its annihilation for several years. The debate has actually been going on for more like 130 years.

The Romans dealt with mutiny in their armies by what would probably these days be called a short, sharp shock. They executed one man in ten, the victims being drawn by lot. This ferocious disciplinary method was described by the Latin verb decimare, to take a tenth, from decimus, a tenth, from decem, ten (which we retain, for example, in December, the tenth month of the Roman calendar). The English verb decimate, based on the Latin one, turned up only in 1600, at first in the same sense as in Latin. But it also referred early on to a tax amounting to one-tenth of a person’s assets, in particular to one imposed by Oliver Cromwell in 1655. This tax was equivalent to a tithe, a relic of an Old English word that in the modern language has become tenth.

What continues to annoy some people is that decimate later took on a broader meaning of killing or destroying any large proportion. Nobody seems to have been bothered about this until Richard Grant White, an American essayist, cellist, Shakespearean scholar, newspaper editor and former chief clerk in the New York Customs House, wrote Words and Their Uses in 1870. He was mocked for his views at the time, not least for his denial that English has any grammar, for faulty etymologising, and for chapters excoriating misused words and words that are not words. White’s complaint about decimate was directed at a war correspondent in the Civil War who would write sentences like “The troops, although fighting bravely, were terribly decimated.” White remarked that “To use decimation as a general phrase for slaughter is simply ridiculous.”

Though he’s quoted in some works on English as being the instigator of the continuing campaign against decimate, he had a point. He wasn’t arguing — as its critics do today — that the verb can only be used the way the Romans used it, for reduction by one tenth (which some moderns have misunderstood as reduction to one tenth). Nor does he say it can be used only of humans, another criticism that has been made. To argue in this way is to employ the etymological fallacy — the idea that words can only have a meaning that’s implied by their ancient root forms.

Though the usage of decimate has broadened, it hasn’t completely broken free from its roots. In my book, the verb continues to echo its Latin origins by implying a fraction or proportion; it’s just that the proportion has drifted free of its linguistic origins. It feels right to me when it’s used, as H W Fowler wrote in 1926, of “the destruction in any way of a large proportion of anything reckoned by number”.

White’s criticism of “terribly decimated” seems fair, because it’s innumerate, as does “incredibly decimated”, from a recent US newspaper report quoting a librarian complaining about a 15% budget cut. It also seems incorrect to use decimate for indivisibles (“Some have set out to decimate the soul of this great country”), to imply complete destruction (“a totally decimated population”), the killing of an individual (“He protects his brother from the thugs intent on physically decimating him”), the destruction of a named fraction (“A single frosty night decimated the fruit by 80%”), or the part of a whole (“disease decimated most of the population”).

On the other hand, sentences like “There may be no chance of real recovery for Europe’s decimated fish stocks” use the verb in a way that has for two centuries been standard. That’s just the way the language is and critics of such writing are woefully misinformed.

We might, however, take the view that the word has become such a target of vilification and misunderstanding, and is frequently so slackly used in all the cases I’ve cited, that we would all be better off if writers avoided it.

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Page created 19 Jan 2008