The Grammarphobia Blog

Did I decimate the language?

Q: I regret having to correct something you said on the air. You were wrong to criticize a reporter’s statement that 4/5 of a population was decimated. That statement has an actual mathematical meaning, even if it was used improperly by the reporter. The algebraic word problem this represents would mean that 4/5 of a population was reduced by 1/10. Or 4/5 x 1/10 = 4/50 = 2/25 = 0.08.

A: I suppose you’re right by a technicality. But be serious. Nobody in his right mind would deliberately render the figure you’re talking about by saying “four-fifths of a population was decimated.”

As for the word “decimate,” it literally means to kill every tenth one, but most people don’t intend it literally. It can be used loosely to refer to the destruction of a lot of people or things. I give this example in my grammar book Woe Is I: “Gomez says the mushroom crop in the cellar has been decimated by rats.”

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) is with me on using this looser definition of “decimate” for both people and things, but The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) doesn’t go quite so far.

American Heritage‘s usage panel says it’s OK to use “decimate” for killing a large percentage of people, but not for a large-scale destruction of things.

The word “decimate” comes from the Latin decimus, meaning a tenth. In Roman times, the verb decimare meant to take a tax of a tenth, and a decimatio was the execution of one in ten men in a mutinous military unit.

I still think the point that I made on the air was valid. It’s jarring to hear the word “decimate” used with a figure, as in this example from Woe Is I: “The earthquake decimated seventy-five percent of Morticia’s antiques.” Ouch!

Buy Pat’s books at a local store or Amazon.com.