The (Really) True Meaning of “To Decimate”

Has anyone ever told you that you, or most people, use this word incorrectly? It’s possible, because it’s a favourite of misguided pedants.

It’s main use now is to mean to inflict heavy losses, or to almost completely destroy/defeat. It’s usually used in a military sense, as so: 

Our forces were decimated in the brutal battle.

But someone who knows a little about Roman history might take issue with this usage. The word comes from the Latin verb decimare, which meant to kill one in ten of a certain group, as punishment for the whole. It could be a punishment used against a rebellious town, or a legion that disobeyed its orders.

The argument then goes that using it in its common sense is incorrect, unless exactly 10% of one’s power is lost, but even then the meaning is not exactly the same if the loss is not executed as a punishment.

But have most of us really been using the word incorrectly the whole time?

Of course not. The obvious response to the pedants who insist on the 10% meaning of to decimate is that words change over time and that’s something that’s true of many of our modern English words. Would these pendants also insist on only spending their salary on salt, as the word comes from the Latin salarium, which was a Roman soldier’s allowance to but salt? To decimate has been used to mean to inflict a heavy loss since at least the 1660s. I think that when a word’s had a consistent meaning for over 300 years, it’s entitled to it. But even more importantly, to decimate has never meant to execute or reduce by 10%.

Decimare had that meaning, back in Ancient Rome, but to decimate has never had that meaning in English. It came from the Medieval Latin decimatus, which meant to tithe. To tithe means to impose a tax, or tithe, for one’s church, usually about 10% of one’s earnings. To decimate, and its noun form decimation, had this meaning for at least about 100 years before their current meaning.

So if someone insisted we should only use to decimate to mean to tithe, I still wouldn’t agree with them, but I’d say they’ve more of a case than those who insist it should have the same meaning as a vaguely-related Latin verb used in Ancient Rome. At least to decimate had that meaning at one point.

It goes to show how a little knowledge can not only go a long way, but occasionally too far. I can understand the people who “correct” the way to decimate is used. With a little Chinese whispers, people came to believe that to decimate came directly from Latin, and the idea of it meaning to execute 10% is an attractive one. It makes an interesting story. Couple this with our inherent desire to show off what we “know,” and it’s no surprise that this misconception is perpetuated, like other too-good-to-be-true stories.

Still, though I understand the pendants, being one myself in many ways, I don’t like people being told they’re wrong when they’re not. So if someone tells you you’re using to decimate incorrectly, now you know what to tell them.

16 thoughts on “The (Really) True Meaning of “To Decimate”

    • Don’t worry, I did too for a long time. In fact I only really started to think that it couldn’t have had that meaning when I was planning this post. I think people believing it is fine and understandable, as long as they don’t arrogantly correct people 😊.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. There are some words which I would probably never ever use, because of the level of the dispute. Whether I mean ‘kill one in ten’ or ‘inflict widespread death or destruction’, I will find some other way of saying it.

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      • I can’t remember that I have even used it. I remember a house-sharer saying that she’d decimated half the cockroaches in the back yard, which struck me as odd by either definition (‘destroyed half’ is fine, but ‘decimated half’ somehow isn’t).

        Jan Freeman of the Boston Globe said ‘we don’t especially need a term that means “kill one in 10” … you’re free to use decimate only in the narrow sense — but [quoting Barbara Wallraff’s book “Word Court”] “in that case, you won’t be using the word very often”.

        Liked by 1 person

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