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.
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