Don’t Waste “Decimate”

By Maeve Maddox

A member of the DWT Forum called my attention to a strange use of the verb “decimate”:

. . . today I came across a . . . usage that was new to me: A pundit said that Obama’s failure to get his health care bill passed would have led to “the decimation of his presidency”.

Decimate derives from decem, the Latin word for “ten.” It originated in a Roman military practice. To enforce discipline in the ranks, Roman officers dealt with a breach of duty by one legionary by punishing the soldier’s entire company. The men would be assembled and told to count off. Every tenth man was killed. The company had been “decimated.”

It would be ridiculous in the 21st century to insist on using decimate only with its original meaning. However, it does make sense to confine the word to the sense of eliminating part of a group.

H.W. Fowler stated that the meaning of decimate

“is naturally extended to the destruction in any way of a large proportion of anything reckoned by number, e.g. a population is decimated by the plague.

I expect that Fowler would classify “decimate his presidency” as a Slipshod Extension. Here are some more questionable uses from the web:

Irrevocable mistakes can decimate an inherited IRA

I hope, no I pray that I am wrong, but tonight, that wonderful audacious inspiring Presidential candidate will politically decimate his presidency and legacy.

Bush’s star-tinged vision decimated by his own budget

And sadly, even with his departure, there remains [sic] far too many, who supported his efforts to decimate our democracy and delay efforts to stop those who lay waste to the world’s climate.

Here, also from the internet, are some appropriate uses of decimate:

We have to make decisions and deal with the economy. We’re not going to cut, cut, cut,” he said. “Because we cannot afford to decimate programs across the board. ”

The ruling Zanu PF party continues with a covert plan, hatched by the Joint Operations Command (JOC) soon after the March elections, to completely decimate the MDC structures despite winning the June presidential poll run-off, the opposition party has said.

Global Warming Will Decimate Arctic Peoples

Decimate is a useful word. The indiscriminate use of it to mean merely “destroy,” chips away at the special sense of eliminating a large proportion of a group of people or things.

Suggested alternatives:

the ruination of his presidency

mistakes can deplete/demolish/eradicate an inherited IRA

politically destroy his presidency and legacy.

vision shattered by his own budget

who supported his efforts to demolish/exterminate our democracy

Careful writers will weigh what they mean by decimate before throwing it into a sentence just because it sounds fashionable.

Click here to get access to 800+ interactive grammar exercises!


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8 Responses to “Don’t Waste “Decimate””

  • Cecily

    I think the meaning of “decimate” is somewhat irrelevant because you do not know which of two near opposite ones readers or listeners will infer. Consequently I only ever use it discussions about language, such as this.

    As the person who raised the question quoted, I’d also like to point out that my query was explicitly not about that issue, but about the fact that up till now, I’d only encountered it being used for countable things, not something as abstract as a presidency.

    So, my question is, is “decimate” widely used for abstract things, and if so, is that a new trend, and is it a good one?

  • Larry Sherman

    The author states: “The indiscriminate use of [decimate] to mean merely “destroy,” chips away at the special sense of eliminating a large proportion of a group of people or things.”

    I would suggest that the special sense of decimate is not the elimination of a “large proportion of a group…”, but the elimination of a SMALL (1/10 to be exact) proportion of a group as an example to the larger group.

  • judy

    Hi, Cecily.
    I think your question was answered in the third paragraph.

    “It would be ridiculous in the 21st century to insist on using decimate only with its original meaning. However, it does make sense to confine the word to the sense of eliminating part of a group. ”

    You are quite correct to assume that the word decimate should be used for things that are quantifiable. Just because a usage appears in a news report does not mean that it is right.

    If you want a little more on news reporters and grammar, try this blog post: http://www.npr.org/blogs/waitwait/2010/03/in_which_i_try_to_use_all_of_w.html. Warning: Do not read it unless you have a large bottle of aspirin handy.

  • Frank Elliott

    Improper use of “decimate” has been one of my pet peeves for years. I am willing to accept usage that implies reduction by a significant proportion. But it seems that I often see it used to imply that that subject at hand was eliminated. That’s just wrong.

  • Cecily

    Great link, Judy. Thanks.

  • Completely

    If decimate is supposed to mean the destruction of a portion of a population, then why is “completely decimate” considered proper usage? Isn’t decimate by definition an incomplete destruction?

  • Cecily

    @Completely: I agree. Despite what the blog post says, I don’t think “completely decimate” is proper usage, and I’m sure I’m not the only one. It makes little sense whether you think decimate should have its older meaning (destroy one tenth) or modern meaning (almost wipe out).

  • kar_sudeep

    Hi,

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