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One in 10

The word decimate comes to us courtesy of the inspired old Roman custom of punishing a mutiny by choosing by lot and executing one in every 10 men in a legion. Same root as decimal.

I doubt that even a die-hard purist would seriously insist on the English word’s retaining a literal etymological sense of one in 10. But how should we understand it in English? Using it in what one can argue is the most legitimate sense — to suffer a substantial damage — risks misunderstanding by the multitude of readers who have come to think of it as meaning to suffer an overwhelming loss.

The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary thinks that the looser usage rises from a misunderstanding that the word means to execute nine of 10. And in a nation that appears to have more citizens who can reach Old Church Slavonic than can calculate a percentage accurately, that theory carries weight.

I suspect that considerable responsibility for the looser meaning lies with sportswriters, who are addicted to using the language of warfare to describe grown men playing children’s games:

Dons decimate UCD bullpen

Celtics decimate Raptors

It took years for fans to forgive baseball for its apparent greed that resulted in the cancellation of the World Series, a reaction that cost the sport millions of dollars in revenue and threatened to decimate the sport.

That last example shows how far we have gone to turn a word that means the loss of a percentage of a countable total into a word that just vaguely means to damage seriously or cripple. And if sportswriters bear responsibility, they do not bear it alone:

Frequent hurricanes decimate sea turtle beaches

Global warming to decimate China’s harvests

Former Sen. Thompson’s entry could decimate second tier of ’08 hopefuls

So the precise writer is left in a fix. To use the word in the narrow sense may be misunderstood. To use it in the broad sense is distasteful. If I were you, I would avoid it altogether, unless it is possible to use it in a specific context, such as with percentages, to show exactly what you mean. Leave the sloppiness and hyperbole to the people whose taste runs to that sort of thing.

Posted by John McIntyre at 2:22 PM | | Comments (8)
        

Comments

That would mean nearly everyone in television and radio news. Where is David Brinkley when you need him?

Speaking of solecisms regarding word choice, The Post-Standard (Syracuse) last Thursday mentioned "prostrate cancer" in a head for an obit sidebar (but not in the story narrative), which leads me to believe they are sorely missing those copy editors forced into retirement this year. I guess prostrate cancer really lays people out.

At a guess -- without making excuses -- "decimate" has such a nice crisp smack to it when spoken I think you probably have to search for the origin of the remanufactured term among radio broadcasters. Who may or may not have had any idea what it meant in the original.

Just a guess. I note that dictionaries don't cite radio and TV. Clearly, they are vehicles of mutation for English words.

Washignton Post:

"During his years in Annapolis, Winegrad was known to some as the "environmental conscience" of the Senate for his work to preserve open land, reduce pollutants that harm the bay and ban fishing of the bay's decimated rockfish in the 1980s."

(Sept 6)

The word devastate can often be substituted for "decimate" without offending the writer or altering the sense and rhythm of the prose.

My favorite sentence that uses decimate in its literal etymological sense is "Tithing to the church has decimated my income." Yes, I'm probably going straight to hell.

As a sports historian, I object to the phrase "grown men playing children’s games" to describe organized sports. Every organized sport whose origin can be traced was meant to be played by grown men. That's why, for example, Little League Baseball is played on a scaled-down diamond.

To keep the old post going... I always thought that decimation of a legion would be as devastating as many of the occasions it's used, and that describing something that's destroyed as decimated would have been a fine metaphor once, just a bad metaphor to use when there's possibly some much larger precise proportion known to be destroyed. But that may well just be me filling in from the contexts I've heard it used.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at john.mcintyre@baltsun.com.
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