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Decimation

August 30, 2013
It seems to me that our beautiful language is under attack. Texters are reducing our language to a few symbols that can never carry the full potency of profound or sublime meaning, and just a few weeks ago I received a wedding invitation that contained two grammatical errors and eight typos. I’m not the perfect warrior to defend our language from those who would reduce it to a fortune cookie scribble, but I do place myself in the ranks of those who cherish words, even as I acknowledge that language is a continuously growing and evolving entity. Eight years of high school and college Latin, the font of English and most Romance languages, should count for something.

    

My temper reached a boiling point last night when I heard an evening newscaster use a particular word incorrectly, and I’m here to straighten out the error. Decimate does not mean to wipe something out or destroy it. Time and time again I hear this word misused; an avalanche of mud in India decimated a village, or fires decimated a thousand acres near Yosemite. You’d think people whose job it is to enlighten us with words would know what they mean.

    

Fifteen hundred years ago Rome ruled much of the world by relying on the might of its legions, consisting of approximately 5,400 soldiers. To be a Roman legionnaire was a mark of honor and distinction, and armies run on discipline. The worst thing that could befall a Roman legion was not to be wiped out in battle but to be decimated. If a legion’s performance in battle was cowardly or the legion didn’t follow the directions of a general, the general would have the soldiers form ranks and shout out from one to ten. Every tenth man, after removing his armor and weapons, was clubbed or stoned to death by his comrades. In an average legion this resulted in over five hundred men being brutally executed. Decem is the Latin word for ten and the root word for decimal. December was originally the tenth month of the year.

    

Living and serving in the Roman army prompted men to forge friendships that were nearly as strong as familial bonds and it must have been difficult to execute the fellow you shared a tent with. Since brothers often served in the same legion it sometimes fell on one brother to kill his own sibling. Harsh yes, but discipline was mandatory if you were hell-bent on ruling the world.

    

So the next time you hear the word decimate you’ll now be able to tell if they’re using the word correctly—the loss of one tenth of something. Now one more pet peeve before I climb down from my pedestal—the word literal. If I hear one more person use that word incorrectly I’ll literally jump out of my skin.

 

 

 

    

 

     

     



Comments

31 Comments
A friend of mine is a teacher and I was grading papers for her a while back. A student used the term "decimate" when they they meant was "disseminate." I don't know what they had against those pamphlets. Perhaps the pamphlets had been embarrassing in battle.
By: Katy Anders on August 30, 2013
Here's what diction.com says: 1. to destroy a great number or proportion of: The population was decimated by a plague. 2. to select by lot and kill every tenth person of. 3. Obsolete . to take a tenth of or from. I'm more concerned with what the hell "twerking" means.
By: PT Dilloway on August 30, 2013
I consider myself schooled. Literally.
By: Laurel on August 30, 2013
I do so empathise over the misuse of my mother tongue, but the New Oxford Dictionary comments "superseded by the later, more general sense 'kill or destroy (a large proportion of). Some traditionalists argue that this and other later senses are incorrect, but it is clear that this is now part of standard English". Hmm.
By: Brighton Pensioner on August 30, 2013
I love the history of words and this was a tonic for me today!
By: Shelly on August 30, 2013
Thank you for this. I thought I was the only one who pointed out misuse of words. Funny...I'm reading "History of the Ancient World" now (I'm a nerd that way). As I was reading a chapter on the "Gladiator War," the author told of what she called an "ignoble retreat" by Roman legionaries (I've learned that they are NOT supposed to be called legionaires) during a battle against Spartacus and the loincloth-clad boys. Their general, Crassus, then decimated his troops and, yes, five hundred were killed. The author then went on to say that this was highly effective and...well...you know what happened to Spartacus. By the way, I learned that the word "excruciate" is a Latin word which stood for "from the cross." Yeah, I would think that fits.
By: Al Penwasser on August 30, 2013
I'm still going to use "decimate" to mean to remove a large portion. I didn't know the origin of "excruciating"!!
By: fishducky on August 30, 2013
In fact, this practice was continued in armies throughout Europe until well into the 1800's, if the sources i've read were correct. Yes, i don't like misuse of this word, either.
By: mimi on August 30, 2013
Loved the history lesson, I'm with you on the literal thing, but I think you are a bit picky on decimated (damn that is twice in one day that I agree with PT!) Anyway great post. There is much about it that I would like to conversate with you.
By: Cranky on August 30, 2013
This just illustrates to me the imporance of studing Latin. Thanks for the histoy and language lesson! Scientia est vox
By: Kathe W. on August 30, 2013
Wow! I learned something. You're really a fine teacher. Until now I always thought "decimation" was that dot between dollars and cents. ;)
By: Scott Park on August 30, 2013
I could literally die cuz of the dumb way people use some words. Love, Janie
By: Janie Junebug on August 30, 2013
The origin of decimation is both fascinating and very disturbing. I love your history lessons and your art lessons. I think Inigo Montoya said it best, "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."
By: Nancy Felt on August 30, 2013
Those Romans were brutal... I had five years of Latin in high school. I much preferred reading erotic poetry by Catullus, Tibullus, and Propertius (not sure if those names are spelled differently in English - I'm looking at my book from 11th grade right now). Can you imagine an all-girls school, 11th grade, with a very handsome male Latin teacher, reading erotic poetry in class? If someone tried this here, his job would be very quickly ELIMINATED.
By: Pixel Peeper on August 30, 2013
Historically, you are correct. But meanings change over time and the usage that you condemn is now commonly accepted as correct. But don't yell at me - I don't make the rules! : ^ )
By: Catalyst/Bruce on August 30, 2013
It's like line edits all over again. Yes, the word originally meant to kill every tenth man. However, in the 1800s, the meaning was changed/modernized to mean the death of a portion of a population. (See the definition in any dictionary.) The meanings of words change over time otherwise we'd all still be speaking Latin or sound like Shakespeare. For instance, "pot" has had a new meaning since 1935. You can still cook in one, but now you can be arrested if you smoke any. Now, I can say something makes me mad -- you'd understand that as angry. Before 1300, it would have meant I was insane. And you know what's a new word since 1995? Blogging. (It used to be weblogging until it was shortened and put in the dictionaries.)
By: Lexa Cain on August 30, 2013
A very good read is the story of the Oxford English dictionary by Simon Winchester. I highly recommend it.
By: Red on August 30, 2013
When you have this urge again, please take on the multitudes who say, "He text me last night." When did THAT become proper? They look at me like I've grown two heads when I say "texted."
By: Val on August 30, 2013
Excellent post. But I must query-can we literally decimate congress?
By: Tom Cochrun on August 30, 2013
And here I was thinking it was about some dude bragging about his number of sexual conquests.
By: Roly on August 30, 2013
Stephen, of course, I agree. But there is little discipline today because to look further, to feel more deeply, to put down the iPhone and to be mentored by an artist as yourself is too hard. People take the "easy road". I salute you for remaining true to yourself, and not selling out! Stay the course!!!
By: Michael Manning on August 31, 2013
It's a bloody shame. The bastardization of many languages is ongoing. Another word often misused is 'peruse'.
By: Daniel LaFrance on August 31, 2013
Eight typos?? Really??? You would think the printer would of caught all of the mistakes even if the bride and groom filled out the order incorrectly. As for the definitions of decimate and literal. As people start using words in a variant manner, dictionaries change the definitions. I noticed on the word decimate the dictionary has a historical context and a modern definition. Literal the same thing...Modern definition says "literal" is used for emphasis not necessarily "literal".
By: Cheryl P. on August 31, 2013
Those Romans were very impressive, in their own way, but I am even more impressed that you took 8 years of Latin!
By: tom sightings on August 31, 2013
Well yes, but word meanings change over time, and as someone has pointed out above, such is the case with decimate. "Literally" is becoming a case in point. Prevalent usage means that it can pretty well now mean the opposite of literally.
By: AC on August 31, 2013
I love this post. Not only did you set us straight on the use of that word, but I always get a kick out of learning something new. Fascinating.
By: Carrie on August 31, 2013
You would make a great teacher, a college professor maybe. You have a way of sharing something interesting that is fun to read.
By: CiCi on August 31, 2013
A horrendous thing decimation.
By: John on September 1, 2013
While I was aware that the word was being used incorrectly, I was unaware of the origins. How interesting! Thank you for sharing this, I love learning new things. Literally. Ugh. Why can't people just say figuratively? Why? I hate when people say "pacific" when they mean "specific". That hurts my emotions.
By: The Insomniac\'s Dream on September 1, 2013
I didn't know the origin of decimate but unlike you, I accept how it has evolved and become an acceptable term as described in your pet peeve. As for literally, it seems to take the place of "figuratively" for some.
By: Hilary on September 1, 2013
The incorrect use of "literally" drives me up a wall. Figuratively.
By: Mitchell is Moving on September 2, 2013

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