Be careful! Decimated

17 Jun

I have always foamed at the gills slightly when someone has used decimated to refer to “lots of people/things”, as in “The invading army decimated the defenders and no one on that side survived”.

That’s because I’d learned that decimated means to kill a tenth. The clue’s in the first part of the word – from the Latin decimus or tenth (it came into English via Middle English). There is a specific use of the word that does mean that – in ancient Rome, one in ten of a group of soldiers could be killed to punish the mutiny of the whole group.

But look in your dictionary nowadays and you will see something along the lines of “To destroy a large proportion of something” as the first and major meaning. There may be a little explanation relating to those pedants among us who still insist on the idea of killing only a tenth of the population of whatevers. But this is one that has passed into common usage, and having found this out, I am no longer permitted to froth at the gills when I hear the “other” usage.

I was going to say that I’ll still never use it myself in the less precise way … but I’m not sure that I have ever, actually, used the word …

Be careful! is a series of posts about words that are misused commonly – but really shouldn’t be. It’s not a new variant of meaning, it’s an error that gets duplicated as people see the word misused and copy it.

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Posted by on June 17, 2013 in Be careful, Errors, Language use, Writing


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23 responses to “Be careful! Decimated

  1. munchkinwrites

    June 17, 2013 at 8:12 am

    I didn’t know that! I don’t think I use the word much either, but thanks for sharing!


    • Liz at Libro

      June 17, 2013 at 8:14 am

      Thanks for your comment. It’s one of those that isn’t used much in proportion to the number of arguments it causes, I think!


  2. Nordie

    June 17, 2013 at 8:32 am

    I still reserve the right to froth. Because I’m like that….:)


    • Liz at Libro

      June 17, 2013 at 8:33 am

      You can froth all you like, as long as you know the rules!


  3. ClareLauwerys

    June 17, 2013 at 8:57 am

    I shall froth too. Just because so many people have misused the word should not make the misuse acceptable. The dictionary people should hang their heads in shame for encouraging such behaviour.


    • Liz at Libro

      June 17, 2013 at 8:59 am

      Excellent work, Clare! I might have to show some dictionary people these comments if they build much more!


  4. Sue Browning

    June 17, 2013 at 12:50 pm

    I am completely at ease with this one. After all, how often do we find ourselves talking about killing one in ten soldiers to punish mutiny? So how often will we need to use ‘decimate’ in its original sense? And if we need to, we still can.

    And why choose to protect this one (not very useful) word,which has been used in its more general sense since the 17th century, as opposed to, say, ‘nice’, which less than 500 yrs ago meant ‘foolish, silly’?


    • Liz at Libro

      June 17, 2013 at 12:59 pm

      All good points! Or luxurious, which I’m sure I recall used to mean “lecherous”?


  5. Verns

    June 17, 2013 at 4:15 pm

    I have to agree with Sue – language changes and we pedants have to learn which battles need to be fought and which are already lost. Nice one about ‘nice’, by the way. I knew that it had once meant ‘accurate’, but didn’t know about its ‘foolish’ definition.

    ‘Carry out’ is another expression whose meaning has changed over the years. Chambers used to define it as ‘to remove dead soldiers*’ and the definition ‘to accomplish’ was classified as erroneous. Now, of course, ‘to accomplish’ is the accepted definition and ‘to carry out for burial’ is classified as old.

    *Possibly those soldiers who had been decimated…


    • Liz at Libro

      June 17, 2013 at 4:16 pm

      Thanks for your comment, Pauline – this is my most commented-on Be Careful post ever, I think! Nice use of the soldiers …


  6. lindaproofreads

    June 17, 2013 at 6:02 pm

    For some reason, this always reminds me of the mitigate/militate confusion. But I’m not sure why! I have a feeling that decimate makes it into the Guardian style guide. I can’t find their current guide online to check.


    • Liz at Libro

      June 17, 2013 at 6:45 pm

      Oh, as in “mitigate against”? I should do those, shouldn’t I. Need to update the index, too.


  7. Jon A.

    June 17, 2013 at 7:32 pm

    When modern organisations talk about downsizing, should they really say decimating, maybe ?! Or would the one in ten limit be too low …


    • Liz at Libro

      June 18, 2013 at 7:07 am

      I couldn’t possibly comment!


    • Julia Kossowska

      June 18, 2013 at 5:28 pm

      My department went from 300 to 30 – I hope it wasn’t just because someone had meant “decimate” in the old sense and someone else used it in the new sense.


      • Liz at Libro

        June 18, 2013 at 5:29 pm

        It’s a bit suspicious that 30 is 1/10 of 300 … maybe someone wasn’t great at maths!


        • aijon321

          June 18, 2013 at 7:37 pm

          A colleague reduced her hours to 90% of full-time. Did she decimate herself?! …


  8. Oliver Lawrence

    June 23, 2013 at 4:12 pm

    Whether we like it or not, “decimate” is now widely used to mean “do away with a large number of”. Game over, in effect. Words change meaning in various ways over time, rightly or “wrongly”.

    The important thing, IMHO, is deciding if and when to use a word like “decimate”. If you mean it in the “old” way, will your readers realise? If you mean it in the “new” sense, will the sticklers bridle? In both these scenarios, plenty of people would be distracted from your actual content/message, which isn’t what you want. Writer/editor/translator, know thy readership.


    • Liz at Libro

      June 23, 2013 at 4:16 pm

      Good point. I don’t think I’ve used it in years, just in case … And hello to a fellow Proz member!


  9. Ric Werme

    June 17, 2018 at 12:54 am

    At one point I thought that during coverage of hurricane Katrina that a TV journalist used decimate instead of devastated. Later I found previous uses of decimate used thusly, so perhaps Katrina was the first time I heard it (and heard it frequently).

    Of course, the original meaning of decimate is such a special case that it hardly deserves its own word.

    I try not to get too bent out of shape when a tornado decimates a community – it might be the right word!

    Now, if the tornado was associated with “lightening” and thunder, I reserve the right to set straight anyone in earshot!


    • Liz Dexter

      June 17, 2018 at 5:58 pm

      Nice comment, thank you! I try not to get cross about anything but I do try to educate people on how to write with precision so they are expressing exactly what they intend to express.



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