Real Vocabulary Quiz, Question 6: is it acceptable to use “decimate” to mean “kill or destroy in large numbers”?

Posted by on February 17, 2016

Real Vocabulary with Scott ThornburyOur Real Grammar series showed how the evidence of language in use often undermines or contradicts the made-up or outdated “rules” which some people insist on.

In this series on Real Vocabulary, with Scott Thornbury, we’re bringing you blog posts, videos and a quiz that give evidence-based answers to frequently asked questions about vocabulary.

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In the sixth question in our Real Vocabulary quiz, we asked whether it was acceptable to use the verb decimate in a sentence like this:

During the 14th century, the population was decimated by crop failures.

This is an easy one: the answer is a definite, unequivocal yes: the dominant meaning (in fact, the only meaning) of the English verb decimate is “to cause damage, death, or destruction on a large scale”. For many years, decimate was one of the prescriptivists’ pet peeves – a word which they believed almost everyone used wrongly. For these traditionalists, decimate should only be used to mean “to kill one-tenth of a group of people, especially mutinous soldiers, as a punishment”. Their argument is based on the fact that this was the original meaning of the Latin verb (decimare) which decimate comes from. (“Decimation” was a form of punishment used in the Roman army if soldiers rebelled against their officers.)

In reality, the word is never used in this sense in present-day English, and only the most diehard pedant would still insist that this is its correct use. Grammar Girl, for example, whose advice on usage is usually at the more conservative end of the spectrum, tells her readers that they can “Use decimate without fear to describe a huge culling or loss”. But, as we have seen so many times in our Real Grammar and Real Vocabulary series, prescriptivist “rules” – however irrational they may be – can sometimes take a long time to die. The American Heritage Dictionary reports that 81% of its Usage Panel now accept the normal, contemporary meaning of decimate – but that still leaves 19% who adhere to the old notion that only the Latin meaning is correct. The Economist Style Guide, too – while not endorsing the old “kill one-tenth of” meaning – remains somewhat cautious, warning its readers that:

Decimate means to destroy a proportion (originally a tenth) of a group of people or things, not to destroy them all or nearly all.

The reason Grammar Girl decided to discuss this topic in the first place is that, as she explains:

When I was doing radio interviews last week … multiple people called in to complain that other people are using the word decimate wrong.

In other words, so many people have had this traditionalist notion drummed into them at school that they continue to believe it must be right.

What’s happening here is an example of our old friend the “etymological fallacy”: this is the mistaken belief that a word should only mean what it originally meant when it was absorbed into English from an earlier language such as Latin or ancient Greek. If we follow this way of thinking, the only acceptable meaning of hysterical (which comes from Latin hystericus, and ultimately Greek hystera, meaning “womb”) would be its original (now obsolete) English sense of “suffering from discomfort in the womb”. The etymological fallacy has been discussed on the blog by Stan Carey several times (for example, here and here), and as Stan says in another post on the subject, “No one can uphold the etymological fallacy consistently and still hope to communicate with people”.

Finally, a quick note on what the corpus evidence tells us about decimate. There are traces of the word’s ancient use in military contexts, with words like troops, army, fleet and battalion occurring quite frequently as objects of the verb. Another cluster of common noun objects refers to flora and fauna, with many examples of crops, forests, wildlife, and species being decimated. The two most frequent objects are industry (“The rise of industrial fishing fleets has decimated the traditional fishing industry”) and – most frequent of all – population.

To learn more about Real Vocabulary, keep a close eye on our Real Vocabulary page. You can also follow this topic using #realvocabulary on Twitter, and remember that you can find all the blog posts on this topic by using the tags “prescriptivism” or “realvocabulary”.

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Comments (1)
  • Have many people really had the traditional definition drummed into them at school, or have they more often had it drummed into them somewhere else, e.g. via their peers? I am sceptical on this one.

    I think the liberal definition is best understood in terms of consequences. People say that something is decimated if it undergoes a culling so severe that recovery will not be possible for a very long time if ever. This supports the hypothesis of semantic interference from “devastate”, and agrees with The Economist that it is not applicable in cases of complete destruction.

    Posted by Adrian Morgan on 26th February, 2016
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