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 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