Monday, 8 October 2012

Word of the Day No. 1: Decimate

As I believe I’ve mentioned somewhere or other, English isn’t my native tongue – in fact I didn’t speak a word of the language till I was six years old, when I had to learn it triple-quick in school or sink without a trace. And if you’ve read me at all, you’d know that I do handle it fairly well.

So what gets me irritated out of all proportion is when alleged native speakers of English massacre the language, and misuse it in ways that cry to the heavens for justice, and, yes, there will be a bloody reckoning. Vengeance will be mine!

Um. Where was I?

Yes, well, so this is the first of an occasional series of posts – I’ll write them as and when moved to – where I vent about people maltreating words in mainstream formal usage until said words scream for mercy. Today’s word: decimate.

Before I go any further, has anyone watched the Eisenstein film Battleship Potemkin? Oh, you have? So you’ll remember the scene where the officers of the ship ordered mutinous sailors to be covered by a tarpaulin and shot as an example to the others?


So, back when all roads led to Rome and the legions trampled over Europe, Asia Minor and Africa, they had occasional, let’s say, disciplinary problems. You know, like legionaries rebelling or running away in the face of the enemy, like the Potemkin sailors. If it were only a few men, there wasn’t a problem. You simply tied them to a cross and left them to drown on their own pulmonary fluids. But that was a bit more difficult when it came to a larger unit; if you killed everyone, you would end up with a shortage of personnel. Besides, in order to kill a whole legion, say, you’d probably have to use another legion at the least, and there would probably be bloodshed on both sides; and, of course, no legion would want to be fighting itself in the middle of a larger war. And, of course, again like the Potemkin, the designated assassins might simply refuse to obey their orders to kill their comrades-in-arms.

A pretty problem.

So how did the Romans solve it? They solved it by dividing the rebellious or cowardly troops into groups of ten, after which they held a lottery to pick out one of them. This unfortunate was then killed by the other nine, usually by bludgeoning or stoning. You can see the logic there – the soldiers were forced to punish themselves, the nine survivors probably overwhelmingly glad not to be the lottery “winner”, and were then available for future use. Divide and conquer, as it were.

Well, this practice was known as decimation – the killing of every tenth man. Those of us who are familiar with the metric system will be aware that the prefix deci- denotes a tenth part.

Fine, and so what?

The point is that I am sick and tired of reading allegedly educated people writing “decimated” when they mean “annihilated” or “destroyed”. You don’t “decimate” 80% of a village, for Lucifer’s sake. Hell, today I read somewhere that some woman or other was “decimated”. What did they do, kill one tenth of her?  

I feel like decimating these people. Force them to kill one-tenth of their own number, that is. Or they can bloody well learn how to use their own language.

The choice is in their hands.


  1. Congratulations for your 'Word of the Day' initiative. It's great! It's hard to hear or read English so maltreated by their natives. Unfortunately, the same happens with other languages...
    In Portuguese, we have have word 'dizimar, exactly with the same meaning as 'decimate'. It oftens applies to crops.

  2. Helpful!

    Years ago, I worked for the Anti-Defamation League. The Director used to talk about "decimating pamphlets" a lot.

    Of course, he meant "Disseminating"...

    I threw away one-tenth the pamphlets in order to follow his orders exactly.

    No one got the joke.

  3. You are going to hate me saying this. My 1964 Chambers dictionary agrees with you, but my 2006 Collins one doesn't. It gives the definition of decimate as to destroy a large proportion of something. English is not a static language, and much like any other, it is constantly evolving. Words fall out of common usage, new ones appear and definitions change to fit with popular use. I see words as just tools and not an end unto themselves.

    That's just how it is.

  4. Even if one accepts the contention that linguistic evolution allows one to mangle words to ludicrous extents, that still doesn't allow one to decimate an individual.

  5. Brilliant, I can now write whatevah and innit with impunity. ;)

  6. Two individuals divided by a common language, possibly into tenths?

  7. Bill,
    Thank you!
    Having been born and raised in the USA, I have as my first, and basically only, language as English. Well, OK, American English, not at all the "Kings' English" by any means.
    I know that the English language IS very fluid and words and their usage/meanings do change over time. And yet, it still pisses me off to no end the way so many, and yes mostly in the USA, bastardize the language. W. Shrub is not an example as I believe to a degree he was putting on an act. YES, I am certain he IS a dumb shit, but I doubt he mangles words in private as he did publicly.
    One hears the uneducated or lazy who "axe" me a question and then I catch the BBC and there is a person whose skin in not white speaking in near perfect(whatever that is) English.
    My personal opinion, people get lazy and abuse words to no end. As they do so, words cease to have any real meaning or impact. I am NOT a word or grammar freak/nazi as some of the folks I have run into on the net. I just think words need to be used properly. This still allows for the fluctuation of language and adding, subtracting, and changing meanings with time.
    Excellent topic, keep them coming.

  8. Long an irritant. Glad I stumbled on this.


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