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Should “Decimate” be Annihilated?


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For the past few decades, Lake Superior State University has issued an annual “List of Words Banished from the Queen’s English for Misuse, Overuse and General Uselessness.” Candidates for “banished words” are nominated by the public at large, and then a committee decides on the final selection, which is released every year on New Year’s Day. The 2008 list is a typical mix of terms deemed by the committee to be clichéd, improperly used, or objectionable in some other way, with a particular emphasis on management-speak, Internet lingo, and youth slang. Of course, the LSSU list is never effective in actually banning words — in fact, some words from years past have flourished quite successfully (“online” in 1996, “9-11” in 2002, “blog” in 2005). In general, the list is most informative as a barometer of pet peeves about language: what is it that gets under people’s skin, so much so that they think words (or particularly disliked senses of words) should be removed from the lexicon forthwith?

One of the entries on the 2008 list is the beleaguered word decimate, which originally referred to the ancient Roman practice of executing every tenth soldier in a mutinous army regiment. “Word-watchers have been calling for the annihilation of this one for several years,” the press release states. Comments from nominators include this one from Allan Dregseth of Fargo, North Dakota: “Used today in reference to widespread destruction or devastation. If you will not banish this word, I ask that its use be ‘decimated’ (reduced by one-tenth).” Dane of Flowery Branch, Georgia adds, “The word is so overused and misused, people use it when they should be saying ‘annihilate.’ It’s so bad that now there are two definitions, the real one and the one that has taken over like a weed.”

The LSSU press release notwithstanding, complaints about decimate have been around for a bit longer than “several years.” Richard Grant White, one of the most popular commentators on language in the nineteenth century, was griping about it as far back as 1868, in an article in The Galaxy entitled “Words and Their Uses,” as well as a widely read book of the same name published two years later. (This is a fine example of what the linguist Arnold Zwicky has called the Recency Illusion: “the belief that things YOU have noticed only recently are in fact recent.”) White’s observations on decimate grew out of the writing of Civil War correspondents, as in: “The troops, although fighting bravely, were terribly decimated, and gave way.” Because this sense does not accord with the “one-tenth” etymology, Grant argued that “to use decimation as a general phrase for great slaughter is simply ridiculous.” Following White’s cue, Edward A. Freeman wrote in the 1881 Princeton Review that “the word is dragged in without any thought of its real meaning, without so much as any thought of the number ten.”

Saying that the “real meaning” of decimate is ‘reduce by one-tenth’ aptly illustrates the “etymological fallacy” — the notion that we have to go back to the usage of a bygone era, and perhaps even a different language, to divine the “true” sense of a word. Decimate entered English around 1600, with reference to the Roman army practice. Around 1650, the Earl of Essex tried to revive Roman “decimation” to keep the peace in Ireland, but subsequent use of the word decimate in the “one-tenth” sense invariably referred back to the Roman era. And by 1663 the usage of decimate had already expanded to mean “to destroy or remove a large proportion of,” according to citations collected in the Oxford English Dictionary.

For nearly three and a half centuries, then, virtually every use of the word decimate has been in this extended sense, except when referring to the harsh old Roman practice. And these days such references seem limited to complaints about the word itself. However, even though there is scant evidence in the history of standard English usage to support the idea that the “one-tenth” meaning is the “real” one, some questions of usage have lingered. H.W. Fowler in his 1926 Dictionary of Modern English Usage disapproved of using decimate to refer to animals, plants, or anything else non-human. Fowler also warned of using the word in contexts are “expressly inconsistent with the proper sense,” such as using it with a fraction other than one-tenth (e.g., “decimated by as much as 80 percent”). More recently Bryan Garner’s Modern American Usage acknowledges the general usage of the extended sense but still notes that the word is “sometimes mistakenly applied to a complete obliteration or defeat.”

Regardless of whether one feels that these various extensions of decimate are improper or not, there’s no denying Garner’s point that “the word might justifiably be considered a skunked term,” referring to a disputed word that has undergone a semantic shift, thus making it difficult to use it in either the older or the newer sense. Sticking to the older sense confuses those unfamiliar with it, while using the newer sense annoys traditionalists who feel that it is wrong. (Other words Garner labels as “skunked” include enormity, fulsome, and hopefully, all commonly appearing in lists of usage peeves.) Since the use of a skunked term is a distraction one way or another, writers often choose to avoid it entirely. If such avoidance is what befalls decimate, then perhaps the would-be banishers will get their wish after all!


ben.jpgBen Zimmer is an editor at Oxford University Press and a true word junkie. Once a week he surfaces from his dictionaries to write this column. Check out his “words of the week” on our main page (center column) or by clicking here

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Recent Comments

  1. Adrienne Piggott

    I got into a heated argument over the term decimate with one of my translation teachers a few years ago. Perhaps my youth leads me to be more open to the evolution of the language (or perhaps having a linguist for a father). One thing is certain, the English language will continue to evolve, and old words will take on new meanings. Anyone who tries to fight agains this is in for a long (and somewhat pointless) battle. After all, gurl became girl, the definition changed, and I don’t hear too many people complaining.

  2. Peter Metcalfe

    I should note that Julian the Apostate who knew far more latin than any of the people complaining about “decimate” had the impression that it meant killing ten people.

  3. Paula Mathieson

    Is “exponential” another equivocal term similar to “decimate”, i.e. also related to numbers and hyperbole?

  4. James Crippen

    The use of “exponential” to mean any great number is actually more of a sign of innumeracy than it is of vocabulary misuse. People who work in mathematically oriented fields, e.g. scientists and engineers, do not tend to misuse “exponential”. But people who are largely innumerate – those who never studied mathematics further than basic algebra – do tend to misuse it because they aren’t as sensitive to its mathematical meaning.

    On the other hand, “decimate” has no technical application outside of discussing the Roman habit. So for that term it’s not a matter of innumeracy, it’s just that people have learned the newer, generalized meaning before they ever learned the classical meaning.

    On the gripping hand, even highly numerate people intentionally or semi-intentionally misuse terminology like “exponential”, but they’re largely aware of the hyperbole. Indeed, I had a conversation with a physicist not too long ago where he complained about the “exponential growth of idiocy” among college students. He knew perfectly well that it’s probably more like a linear growth pattern.

  5. Martyn Cornell

    I love the expression “skunked term”, supplies a great image – purists holding their noses as someone else misuses “fulsome” to mean “effusive”

  6. Stephen

    How about “unique” in usages that don’t limit to one?

  7. David Craig

    “Egregious” is a term of approval, “nice” means “ignorant,” and “silly” means “blessed.”

  8. Chris

    I’m usually very accepting of the ways that language grows and changes, but this one always annoys me. The prefix “deci” is right there for all to see. We might as well change the definition of the word “quartered” to mean 1/2th.

  9. [...] University Press. I will agree there is still confusion over the word, but my idea withstands. Should “Decimate” be Annihilated? : OUPblog http://www.worldwidewords.org/backissues/wbi080112.txt If you think a forum is going downhill, [...]

  10. Tony

    Hi..an American group making comment on the “abuse of the Queen’s English”…well, there’s a chuckle but where else better to do it than in the place where English has been most abused…America…

    How do they know what’s correct?…I suppose buying an ‘older’ dictionary not printed in the USA but in a place where language has some holding of the roots of words might help; but then can they recognise the correct spellings?
    When you work it out take it to Microsoft would you?….maybe it s staff could learn how to spell before correcting other’s correct spelling.

    Cheers

  11. Tony

    By the way your computer even messed up mine…look it should read “its staff” and “others’correct spelling” cheers

  12. NeilT

    Certainly the Roman use is very clear and specific. But what it appears most people have missed, is that there is a modern need for a word to signify ‘reduced TO (about) a tenth’. In the absence of anything like ‘novimate’, ‘decimate’ has had to do.

  13. leon

    “reduced TO (about) a tenth” I understood the roman idea was to remove every 10th… therefore your correct modern word would signify “reduced BY (about) a tenth”, would it not?.

  14. Rick Brown

    One thing not mentioned here is the main source of the misuse of the term. Media. Think about where you last heard the word misused. In my own personal experience it is the misuse of decimate and its’ derivatives by newspaper, radio and television reporters. One would think that they of all people would know the correct usage of the word. They have had more influence on the continued misuse than any other source.

  15. Greg Bailey

    The truly sad part of this discussion is that, while it is clear that this word should be skunked, it is because of the failure of the Learned, rather than the common man. This is for two reasons, which compound the confusion. The first is the essential failure to understand that there is a difference between literal translation and functional meaning. The second is the difficulty of moving a colloquialism into common usage. While ‘Decimation’ literally describes the method of determining whom shall suffer the punishment, the functional meaning is that those who suffer decimation, die. Therefore, “sometimes mistakenly applied to a complete obliteration” is, in fact, the correct meaning, since those who suffer decimation are the 1/10 part, rather than the whole.

  16. Joe

    I never knew that a number came with the work “decimate”. In fact, the dictionary states one of the definitions of the word as “to cause great destruction or harm” (merriam-webster.com). So if people don’t consider the 10% as part of the definition, then it still isn’t wrong!
    Joe

  17. [...] response to the Lake Superior nonsense, the matter was taken up by Ben Zimmer in his OUP blog and by Michael Quinion in World Wide Words #570 (1/12/08). Quinion approached things cautiously [...]

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