The decimators

An Emily Flake cartoon from the New Yorker:

A long time ago I started a posting on decimate, which seemed not to have been discussed in any detail on Language Log. It began:

The Peevy

It’s time to institute an award for Great Language Peeves — peeves that are widespread, of long standing, and passionately advocated, in the face of solid long-time contrary practice by educated speakers and writers, not to mention a thoroughly specious rationale for the peeve.  It’s a crowded field, but I think that for English, one item stands above all others: the verb decimate used to mean ‘destroy or eliminate a large part of’.  Even more than speaker-oriented hopefully, even more than stranded prepositions and split infinitives, it deserves a Peevy for Lifetime Achievement.

I was inspired to suggest this Peevy by two events. First, a blurb, posted 16 December 2007 on the American Dialect Society mailing list, for the December Vocabula Review, an issue that included:

The Superior Person’s Field Guide to Deceitful, Deceptive & Downright Dangerous Language
by Peter Bowler

decimate, to  v. For the information of journalists and for all radio and TV presenters: to “decimate” a group of people or things does not mean to kill, destroy, ravage, defeat, or lay waste all or most of that group. This all-too-common usage is a classic example of the mistake that can be made by learning the meaning of a word solely from the context in which it is first encountered, and not from the dictionary. To decimate is to kill, destroy, or otherwise remove from the scene one in every ten of the members of that group. Get it right!

Second, from the Lake Superior State University’s “list of banished words” for 2008:

DECIMATE – Word-watchers have been calling for the annihilation of this one for several years.

Used today in reference to widespread destruction or devastation. If you will not banish this word, I ask that its use be ‘decimated’ (reduced by one-tenth).” – Allan Dregseth, Fargo, North Dakota.

I nominate ‘decimate’ as it applies to Man’s and Nature’s destructive fury and the outcome of sporting contests. Decimate simply means a 10% reduction – no more, no less. It may have derived notoriety because the ancient Romans used decimation as a technique for prisoner of war population reduction or an incentive for under-performing battle units. A group of 10 would be assembled and lots drawn. The nine losers would win and the winner would die at the hands of the losers – a variation on the instant lottery game. Perhaps ‘creamed’ or ‘emulsified’ should be substituted. – Mark Dobias, Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan.

The word is so overused and misused, people use it when they should be saying ‘annihilate.’ It’s so bad that now there are two definitions, the real one and the one that has taken over like a weed. – Dane, Flowery Branch, Georgia.

‘Decimate’ has been turned upside down. It means ‘to destroy one tenth,’ but people are using it to mean ‘to destroy nine tenths.’ – David Welch, Venice, Florida.

These quotes will give you something of the flavor of popular opinion about decimate. Passions run high in some quarters, and some people are absolutely sure they know what decimate “really” means (they appeal to the etymology).

ADS-L discussion ensued, with this contribution from Larry Horn (12/16/07) early on:

I wonder whether Mr. Bowler has children, and if so whether he strictly forbade them to use any word (starting with “papa”) before learning its meaning from “the dictionary”.  I also wonder how he managed to locate a dictionary (much less “the dictionary”) which will make sure that these children will encounter only the ‘remove one in every ten of’ sense of _decimate_ and not, say, ‘to destroy or kill a large part of (a group)’ [AHD].  True, the OED brands this use as “rhetorical”/”loose”, but then the ‘kill or destroy, remove one in every ten of’ is a “transf.” use.  The original (and hence only real) use is ‘to select and put to death one in every ten of (a body of soldiers guilty of mutiny or other crime)’.  Well, that would certainly make it easy for Mr. Bowler’s hypothetical children to avoid this troublesome verb.

OED: Milit. To select by lot and put to death one in every ten of (a body of soldiers guilty of mutiny or other crime): a practice in the ancient Roman army, sometimes followed in later times.

I followed this with another scholarly source:

MWDEU has a wonderful sharp-tongued discussion of the word, noting that (a) the proscribed sense is attested since (at least) 1663; (b) people have been complaining about this usage since (at least) Richard Grant White in 1870; and (c) there are apparently *no* attested uses of the verb in the meaning ‘reduce by one-tenth’ (which is not surprising, because there just aren’t that many occasions on which you’d actually want such a verb).

What interests me about the whole matter is the widespread passion with which the usage is condemned.  It’s an enduring peeve fashion (with a longer history even than speaker-oriented “hopefully”).

Jon Lighter objected:

I must be missing something. OED online has decimate, to execute one in every ten (as in the Roman army) from 1600, with the verb decimo as etymon.

And I replied:

Read the MWDEU entry.  This very specific sense (with its allusion to Rome, armies, and executions) is certainly attested, but the OED’s sub-entry for reducing by one-tenth was apparently added by Murray to bridge the semantic development, and *this* sense is the one that’s apparently not attested.

Yes, ‘reduce by one-tenth’ would have been a natural extension, but it apparently wasn’t made (because it wasn’t especially useful; “decimation”, taken right from Latin, continued to refer to a very specific cultural practice).  Instead, speakers seem to have jumped right to the more extravagant meaning.

In response to the Lake Superior nonsense, the matter was taken up by Ben Zimmer in his OUP blog and by Michael Quinion in World Wide Words #570 (1/12/08). Quinion approached things cautiously and ended up suggesting that the verb best be avoided entirely (because it had been contaminated — “skunked”, in Bryan Garner’s terminology — by the loons who insist that ‘reduce by one-tenth’ is the one and only true meaning of the word). In full:

For 33 years, the little-known Lake Superior State University has been getting an annual PR boost as a result of its list of words that ought to be banished from our language, a list generated from suggestions by members of the public. This year’s list contains a classic complaint – the way that people misuse the word “decimate” – that the university notes has resulted in word-watchers calling for its annihilation for several years. The debate has actually been going on for more like 130 years.

The Romans dealt with mutiny in their armies by what would probably these days be called a short, sharp shock. They executed one man in ten, the victims being drawn by lot. This ferocious disciplinary method was described by the Latin verb “decimare”, to take a tenth, from “decimus”, a tenth, from “decem”, ten (which we retain, for example, in December, the tenth month of the Roman calendar). The English verb “decimate”, based on the Latin one, turned up only in 1600, at first in the same sense as in Latin. But it also referred early on to a tax amounting to one-tenth of a person’s assets, in particular to one imposed by Oliver Cromwell in 1655. This tax was equivalent to a tithe, a relic of an Old English word that in the modern language has become “tenth”.

What continues to annoy some people is that “decimate” later took on a broader meaning of killing or destroying any large proportion. Nobody seems to have been bothered about this until Richard Grant White, an American Shakespearean scholar, cellist, newspaper editor, essayist, and former chief clerk in the New York Customs House, wrote Words and Their Uses in 1870. He was mocked for his views at the time, not least for his denial that English has any grammar, for faulty etymologising, and for chapters excoriating “misused words” and “words that are not words”. White’s complaint about “decimate” was directed at a war correspondent in the Civil

War who would produce sentences like “The troops, although fighting bravely, were terribly decimated.” White remarked that “To use decimation as a general phrase for slaughter is simply ridiculous.”

Though he’s quoted in some works on English as being the instigator of the continuing campaign against “decimate”, he had a point. He wasn’t arguing – as its critics do today – that the verb can only be used in the way that the Romans used it, for reduction by one tenth (which some moderns have misunderstood as reduction to one tenth). Nor does he say it can be used only of humans, another criticism that has been made. To argue in this way is to employ the etymological fallacy – the idea that words can only have a meaning that’s implied by their ancient root forms.

Though the usage of “decimate” has broadened, it hasn’t completely broken free from its roots. In my book, the verb continues to echo its Latin origins by implying a fraction or proportion; it’s just that the proportion has drifted free of its linguistic origins. It feels right to me when it’s used, as H W Fowler wrote in 1926, of “the destruction in any way of a large proportion of anything reckoned by number”.

So White’s criticism of “terribly decimated” seems fair, because it’s innumerate, as does “incredibly decimated”, from a recent US newspaper report quoting a librarian complaining about a 15% budget cut. It also seems incorrect to use “decimate” for indivisibles (“Some have set out to decimate the soul of this great country”), to imply complete destruction (“a totally decimated population”), the killing of an individual (“He protects his brother from the thugs intent on physically decimating him”), the destruction of a named fraction (“A single frosty night decimated the fruit by 80%”), or the part of a whole (“disease decimated most of the population”).

On the other hand, sentences like “There may be no chance of real recovery for Europe’s decimated fish stocks” use the verb in a way that has for two centuries been standard. That’s just the way the language is and critics of such writing are woefully misinformed.

We might, however, take the view that the word has become such a target of vilification and misunderstanding, and is frequently so slackly used in all the cases I’ve cited, that we would all be better off if writers avoided it.

Eventually, of course, thanks to this bizarre history of language peeving, we find some people who *do* use decimate to mean ‘reduce by one-tenth’ — and then find themselves having to point out that they are doing so, since otherwise hardly any of their readers would appreciate their intentions; the point is made for speaker-oriented hopefully in my posting “Avoiding potential ambiguity: Does it improve clarity?”, here, but it applies equally to decimate ‘reduce by a substantial amount, devastate’.

2 Responses to “The decimators”

  1. arnold zwicky Says:

    Somewhat earlier than the discussions summarized above, from Jan Freeman in the Boston Globe: “When in Rome” in July 2007, with an excellent account of the history. Now summarized on her own blog for 2/6/13, here.

  2. Emily Flake « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    [...] posted one Emily Flake cartoon (on decimate, here), I thought to check out some of her other work. (That’s her real name, by the way.) Mostly [...]

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