The Grammarphobia Blog

O death, where is thy sting?

Q: Everyone, including Charles Krauthammer, has done a 180 with the word  “decimate.” It is everywhere both overused and misused.

A: You’re right that almost nobody uses “decimate” in its traditional sense (to kill every tenth man) or in its original English sense (to tax by a tenth).

Like it or not, “decimate” has acquired wider meanings over the years. The old sense of to kill every tenth man is still one of the word’s meanings—but only one.

“Decimate” is generally used these days to mean destroy in part. This is a standard usage, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.).

As far as we can tell, that’s the way the columnist Charles Krauthammer uses the term.

In a May 5, 2011, column in the Washington Post, for example, he says the last Bush administration’s war on terror “scattered and decimated al-Qaeda and made bin Laden a fugitive.”

Although it’s now OK to use “decimate” in this looser sense, the word still carries some of its old etymological baggage.

That’s why we think it’s best to avoid  using “decimate” in a way that clearly conflicts with its old sense of to destroy by a tenth.

For example, we wouldn’t use it with a specific figure, as in “the storm decimated two-thirds of the city.”

And we wouldn’t use it to describe total destruction, as in “The crop was completely decimated.” Beware of those adverbs!

In Origins of the Specious, our book about language myths and misconceptions, we discuss the etymology of “decimate.”

As we write, the word comes to us from the Latin decimus, meaning a tenth, and decimare, to take a tenth. To the Romans, the verb meant to take a tax of one tenth. But it had a darker side too.

“Roman military commanders would sometimes ‘decimate’ a mutinous or cowardly unit by taking every tenth man and executing him,” we say in Origins. “This was called a decimatio, or ‘decimation.’ Occasionally only one in twenty were punished (a process called vicesimatio), or one in a hundred (centesimatio).”

Livy, Plutarch, Tacitus, and other historians of the time all describe incidents leading to military decimations.

“From the bits and pieces of information available, it seems that a rebellious unit was divided into groups of ten, with each group forced to choose lots,” we write in Origins. “The unlucky tenth man in each group was flogged or stoned to death, and as a final indignity the corpse might be decapitated. The survivors were later forced to sleep outside their encampment and to eat barley instead of their usual wheat.”

There’s no evidence, however, that this kind of punishment was common. And historians have suggested that commanders often rigged the lottery so only the ringleaders were killed.

When “decimation” first showed up in English, in 1549, it was used to mean a tithe or a tax of one tenth, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. It wasn’t used to refer to the military punishment until 1580, but that was in a translation of Plutarch.

Over the next three centuries, “decimation” and “decimate” were used in both senses— taxing and executing—though the taxation sense was more common.

Most of the punishment usages were references to classical times, though the British did occasionally revive the ancient practice. The second earl of Essex, for example, used it in Ireland in 1599, apparently inspired by reading a translation of Tacitus.

The OED quotes a 17th-century commentator as saying Essex “decimated certain troops that ran away, renewing a peece of the Roman Discipline.” Essex himself was later beheaded for treason.

In the mid-19th century, the word “decimate” lost the sense of taxing or tithing, but it embraced a meaning that had been seen once in a while, though rarely, in earlier times: to destroy in part or cause great damage.

Charlotte Brontë, for instance, wrote in a letter in 1848, “Typhus fever decimated the school periodically.” We’ve used the word that way ever since.

This sense of destroying in part has been firmly established in English for 150 years. War correspondents from the Civil War to the Crimean War to World War II and beyond have used “decimate” to refer to great destruction or loss of life.

Today this meaning is not only standard English, but also the most common meaning of the word.

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