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.
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.