petermorwood: (Default)
[personal profile] petermorwood
"...I do not think it means what you think it means."

Decimate. Decimation. Decimated.

I've just watched a documentary in which that word was used to describe the effect of air raids on cities during WW2. Once is forgiveable, a slip of the narrator's tongue that nobody caught before transmission, but it came up repeatedly, almost monotonously, and suggested that the writer of the narration had fallen in love with the way it sounded, but never bothered to check what it meant.

I hadn't realised the bombing campaign was so ineffective that it left 90% of the targets undamaged, because to decimate something means to reduce it by 10%. It was a Roman Army punishment in which a unit guilty of some serious offence, usually mutiny or cowardice, would draw lots and then one man in every ten would be executed by his nine companions.

It's not just this particular documentary that's to blame; the misuse happens a lot, to the extent that Diane's heard me applaud when I hear it used correctly. (Pathetic, isn't it?) I wish I knew why this error has become so common, because clearly the assumption is that something decimated has been massively damaged - though I wouldn't credit anyone with thinking it means that only 10% remains. That would be giving credit where it probably isn't due. More likely, the word really intended is devastate and its variants.

Either way it's one of those niggling annoyances, like an itch you can't scratch.

Date: 2011-04-25 12:19 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] silly-swordsman.livejournal.com
FWIW, I'm in complete agreement. I once had someone send off a pet dragon to "decimate" a group of guards, and it returned without having touched any of them, since there were only nine.

Date: 2011-04-25 01:46 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] fgherman.livejournal.com
One of my pet peeves also.

Date: 2011-04-25 08:00 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] keristor.livejournal.com
FWIW, I have heard several people in Real Life(tm) using it to mean (and, on being asked, believing that it means) "reduce /to/ 10%". I have no idea what journalists and TV reporters think, though, or whether they even do...

Date: 2011-04-25 12:49 pm (UTC)
ext_74: Baron Samadai in cat form (Default)
From: [identity profile] siliconshaman.livejournal.com
I believe that's actually one of the legitimate alternate meanings.

Date: 2011-04-25 06:04 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] petermorwood.livejournal.com
Part of my tiny rant was not merely that the word was being used incorrectly, but that it was being used to the exclusion of anything else.

I mention Roget's Thesaurus further down (see Item 165 for alternatives to this incorrect meaning of decimate; there are plenty.

Re. alternatives for "the first word that comes to mind", thesauruses (thesauri?) and synonym finders are useful and fun. But they're also dangerous in the wrong hands - such as mine in about 1978, where I would not use the same word twice if I could possibly avoid it. My first agent, after reading my first draft of what would become The Horse Lord pointed out that the presence of a thesaurus on my desk was as obvious as an elephant in an armchair, and gently suggested it go back on the shelf except in dire need.

It did, and my writing immediately got a lot less orotund, verbose, grandiloquent and loquacious. Usually. :-)

Date: 2011-04-25 08:01 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] miss-next.livejournal.com
I suspect that what we are witnessing here is language change in action. I, too, avoid using it except in the original sense, but I do think we have to accept that the new sense is becoming valid through usage. It is, after all, usage which defines language and not the other way round. If that were not the case, we would still be using "nice" exclusively to mean "precise", "gentle" exclusively to mean "of noble birth", and - going even further back - "what!" would mean "behold!".

Can't say I like it a whole lot either, but language does that.

Date: 2011-04-25 09:07 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] barberio.livejournal.com
If by "witnessing here" we mean "witnessing since around the mid 15th century" re "Decimate" being used to mean "destroy much of".

Date: 2011-04-25 09:09 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] miss-next.livejournal.com
Oh, now that's interesting! I didn't know the usage went back anything like so far. Thanks. :-)

Date: 2011-04-25 07:42 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] silverwhistle.livejournal.com
Unfortunately, in this case it seems to be change fuelled by ignorance and the decline in study of Latin.

Date: 2011-04-25 09:02 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] barberio.livejournal.com
decimate v.tr, a word so abused by pedants that there is a special usage note under it in the Concise Oxford Dictionary, pointing out that they order the meanings by common use and what the only 'incorrect' use of the word is.

Date: 2011-04-25 05:48 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] petermorwood.livejournal.com
"Hey you, you're a pedant! / You've got as much brains as a dead ant..."

From a song by (I think) the Rutles. :-)

Per our copy of the complete OED (microcompact edition 1971, so I had to find the magnifying-glass first:)
Decimate, v [f. L. decimare, to take the tenth, f decimus, ten.

1. to exact a tenth or tithe from; to tax to the amount of one-tenth. Obs. In Eng. Hist. see Decimation (where the first reference is 1549, in a sermon by Bishop Latimer before Edward VI.0
All but two of the other references, dating from the 1600s onward, are of the destruction, execution etc. of one-tenth, or one in ten.

The cited odd-man-out is from Freeman's Norman Conquest of 1867, noted as rare, where he specifically acknowledges the word's accepted meaning but that in this one instance he intends it to mean "nine out of ten."

The uncited variant is noted as loosely/rhetorically "to destroy a large proportion; subject to severe loss, slaughter or mortality." In which case devastate, destroy, obliterate, raze, lay waste and that old standby Ex-term-in-ate! fit the bill with much more less precision. See item 165 in any Roget's Thesaurus for lots more.

The problem is that for too many people a Thesaurus is something that appeared briefly in Jurassic Park III...

Date: 2011-04-25 06:30 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] barberio.livejournal.com
My 9th Ed Cons. has :-
decimate v.tr 1. disp. kill or remove a large proportion of. 2 orig. Mil kill or remove one in every ten of.
* Usage Sense 1 is now the usual sense of decimate although it is often deplored as an inappropriate use. This word should not be used to mean 'defeat utterly'.


And the etymology reference I checked said it had been in this common use since the 1660s. The 1971 pocket OED seems to have taken an obscure meaning related to religious tithing for some reason.

Date: 2011-04-25 07:03 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] petermorwood.livejournal.com
Sense 1 only gets the one rare mention from the 1870s; not just that, I was (slightly) amused that the cited quote was so clearly a writer aware he was making a mistake. Perhaps prompted by memories of the cane when he did that sort of thing at school?

Sense 2 (the "correct" one) takes priority, at least in our edition - though precedence being given to the tax meaning rather than the military/punitive one sent my eyebrows up a bit. Back to school again, where for me "tithe" meant peasants giving 1/10 of their produce to the local monastery or whatever and "decimate" meant Romans being, well, Roman.

It was a bit of an oversight for them not to have come up with a word meaning "kill nine out of ten," unless their attitude to total destruction (slaughter, enslave, burn, flatten, sow with salt) regarded that sort of restraint as wimpy.

I do wonder if earlier references were regarded as Latin rather than English, and thus not suited for inclusion in the OED. That particular reference has always been something of a law unto itself.

Date: 2011-04-25 10:08 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] barberio.livejournal.com
In terms of "Romans being Roman", decimation is one of the kinder things they did. It does not, as often misconstrued, refer to "decimating" an entire legion because of failure. It refers to limiting the punishment of deserters, so that only one in ten of those found guilty were killed. Apparently on the basis that killing all your deserters didn't do much to help manpower retention.

Also, just checked a sample of current English language dictionaries.

First usage as 'To kill or destroy a large number of': Collins, OED, Cambridge, Chambers, Random House, Longman.
First usage as 'To reduce by one tenth': Merriam-Webster.

Date: 2011-04-25 12:58 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] jaxomsride.livejournal.com
Ah but it sounds so much prettier than devastate.
Language is changing all the time, sometimes not for the better.

Date: 2011-04-25 06:17 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] petermorwood.livejournal.com
Prettier... Hmm, not sure about that. But it sounds Latin-ish, and thus suggests the user is a bit more educated.

Larding speech with tags, epigrams and quotations has gone very out of style, but reporters (and, annoyingly, more and more newsreaders who usually don't have the small excuse of working on the fly without a Teleprompter) do often/frequently/sometimes use "big words" where they're not needed - and often/frequently/sometimes get it wrong.

Date: 2011-04-26 01:08 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] targaid.livejournal.com
Remember that conversation we had about the author who'd peppered his prose withe redundant apostrophies in an attempt to make words like "wit'ch" look otherworldly? Reading it must have decimated the enamel on my teeth I ground them so hard and often.

Date: 2011-04-26 05:42 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] petermorwood.livejournal.com
Striated the enamel. Abraded the enamel. Probably not chipped the enamel unless grinding the chompers involves a lot of vertical knapping (or pork scratchings, which I now see come with a warning.)

But not decimated. :-P

Oh yeah, I remember the apostrophes, due to being slightly guilty of that myself to make the clan names in the Clan Wars books look more archaic than the versions in the Book of Years, even though they came first. A sort of aging process, like a crooked antique dealer.

Diana Wynne Jones had a section dealing with the "fantasy apostrophe" (and how to pronounce it!) in Tough Guide to Fantasyland, though unlike the Widowmaker comment, it wasn't for my exclusive benefit. I think...

Date: 2011-04-26 05:57 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] targaid.livejournal.com
I meant I lost 10% of the enamel ;P

Date: 2011-04-26 06:12 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] petermorwood.livejournal.com
When I was very young, about 9, we had that happen to the bathtub when Dad was DIY-ing and dropped a hammer. I didn't know bath enamel could go to powder (or that my Dad knew words like the one he used...)

Joy to all: the old iron bathtub was replaced by an acrylic one that didn't suck the heat from the water before you could get into it. A lot more than 10% of the heat, too: our old family house was almost 200 years old, wasn't central-heated or double-glazed, and had stone walls more than two feet thick. In winter it could chill a blast furnace...

Date: 2011-04-27 09:24 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] targaid.livejournal.com
You were lucky! We lived in an old cardbard box and had to get up an hour before we went to bed to go down 't pit...

Date: 2011-04-25 07:38 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] silverwhistle.livejournal.com
Agreed! This is one of my personal bugbears, too. When people use it incorrectly, I always want to say, "Decimated? Is that all?"

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