"Decimate". Bah, I say!

This certainly wont be anywhere near vile enough for the Pit (like grammar-based rants ever are) and I’m genuinely curious on the thoughts of others, so here we go.

When I was in 9th grade, part of our grammar/ vocabulary lesson involved the explanation of and differentiation between the words decimate and annihilate. We were taught that decimate means to do away with 1 out of 10 (or 10%) and is historically based within the practices of the Roman armies. Annihilate, on the other hand, was explained to mean complete and utter destruction.

For years, I’ve sat silently with a cringe when I hear people say decimate when it is clear to me that they mean to say annihilate. I’m not as bothered when I hear perhaps my friends or the less educated people I interact with get the words switched up, but I occasionally will have a professor use decimate when that is clearly not the word they were looking to use. For instance, in a class this quarter one of my professors said: “Hernán Cortés and his men decimated the native Mexican populations. Some suggest that upwards of 80% of the native populations were slaughtered or died from disease.” It took all of my self control to not be a total smart ass on the midterm when it asked, “What percentage of the native populations were killed after the European invasion?” I mean, this professor was a history professor, you’d assume she’d know that word’s - you know- history.

So, am I just being anal retentive? Looking up definitions for both words, it seems that although decimate can mean 1/10, it seems to have been expanded to mean major, vast, total destruction. Is this just another example of a word that has been improperly used for so long that the definition has changed?

And further: do you notice when people switch the words *decimate * and annihilate ? Are you bothered when you notice? Do you ever correct people or do you feel that’s a bit much?

No, no, no. I refuse to believe the meaning has been expanded. I’m going to continue pedantically correcting people when they misuse it.

Along with the horrible misuse of ‘impacted’ and the terrible word ‘fellowshipping’.

Yes. The only time I have heard the “correct” defintion is when people are pedantically pointing it out. If we only used it to mean “reduce by one in ten”, it wouldn’t be a very useful word. “Destroy most of” is a more useful meaning.

Well you learn something new every day! I never knew there was a percentage involved (even if it isn’t concrete). I always took annihilate to mean either completely destroyed or almost completely destroyed (99.9%), while decimate always meant that a good chunk was taken out without much effort on the part of the decimators. 10% seems a woefully inadequate percentage in my mind to warrant using decimate; that’s more like “acceptable losses.” Granted that’s just based on how the word feels to me and nothing in any way official.

Word usage and language evolve. Although I cringe at the pronunciation of “forte” in English usage - it should be pronounced “fort” as in French for “strong,” NOT “for-tay” which is Italian for “loud” - I must recognized that “for-tay” has evolved into the commonly-used and acceptable pronunciation and it is not practical for me to get stressed believing otherwise. But sometimes I imagine the person in front of me saying “<insert skill name> is my real loud” and giggle to myself.

Of course you are correct - and I respect your frustration. And amongst wordies I would expect you to fly your decimate vs. annihilate flag high, but for daily usage, I wouldn’t want you to take on the stress - it’s not worth it.

This is a slippery slope to be sure - some stuff is worth fighting for - but in many cases, I have resigned myself that I should look for the rare opportunities when fellow wordies and I connect…

I learned the difference in ninth grade too, I think, but they’re both excellent words and I wish people used them more often. I usually see “decimated” in sports stories, and it’d be interesting to see it used literally just once. An ESPN.com article could read as follows:

I for one never knew that there was a substantive difference between annihilate and decimate, so at the very least you can consider my ignorance fought on this matter :slight_smile:

fellowshi ping?
Is th t some sort f new gay se term?

(this post has been decimated by the decimator)

Figures. The freakin’ ancient Roman army always shows up in my threads. :mad:


That would be the wrong usage of the word, by the OP’s strict definition. It didn’t originally mean “leave 10% standing”, it meant “get rid of 10%”.

You’re right, my imagination ran away with me. Oh well.

I don’t think it’s particularly fair to refer to that as “the OP’s strict definition.” The fact is that doing away with one out of ten is the original, classic definition of “decimate.” You’re almost making it sound like I’ve redefined the word or something, when that really isn’t the case.

From here :

and from here:

and from here:

Hardly my “strict definition”.

Of course, you are correct that it would involve doing away with 10% and leaving 90%, not the other way around.

The word “decimate” was never misused to describe the destruction of more than 10% of a given group. It was used metaphorically to describe situations similar to the punishment meted out by Roman emperors to underperforming legions, and probably has been used so since the days of those self-same emperors. I can easily imagine two Roman citizens discussing a particularly one-sided chariot race by saying, “It was like the blue team was decimated by the red team!” Since the number of times exactly 10% of any given group was wiped out would be pretty rare, the metaphorical use ended up outstripping and replacing the literal meaning, which was largely forgotten, except by historians and language pedants.

Keep in mind, too, that you routinely use words that have had their meanings just as severely abused as “decimate,” and probably aren’t aware of it. That’s just how language works. Ever describe something as “awesome?” If it didn’t literally leave you quaking with fear at its overwhelming power and majesty, than you’re just as bad as your history professors who talk about decimating indigenous Central Americans.

Your definition is strict, in that is technically correct but rarely abided by. I’m not sure what the connection is to annihilate, either. Even in common parlance, decimate is not used to mean “destroy completely”.

Similarly, “awful” has come to mean something intensely disagreeable or even just a generic intensifier rather than inspiring awe or filled with awe.

Then there’s “terrific”, which is supposed to mean “inspiring terror”, but is now strangely means “really good”, “great”, or “magnificent”. At least “terrible” still has negative connotations.

For some really head-scratching changes in definition, look up the word “nice”.

That you use ‘major’, ‘vast’ and ‘total’ as synonyms makes me think you’re being choosy about your pedantry :wink:

As for insisting that ‘decimate = reduce by 10%’, the first two dictionaries I look at suggest you should consider the battle fought and lost. (Yeah, they’re British, and we do things differently.)

My bold - why? Etymonline says the ‘e’ was an 18th century addition in emulation of Italian, so why cannot the pronuncation do likewise?

King Charles II, asked what he thought of Sir Christopher Wren’s new St Paul’s Cathedral, is said to have called it “amusing, awful and artificial”. Sounds like he didn’t like it much… until you realise that he meant “pleasant to look at, awe-inspiring, and full of skilful artifice”.

For obvious reasons, as a Roman historian, I have the tendency to think the same way the OP does. It doesn’t bother me too much, though.

NOBODY expects the ancient Roman army! Their chief weapons are the gladius and an unbreakable wall of shields. And a steely resolve to kill 10% of their men as punishment.

Their chief weapons are the gladius, an unbreakable wall of shields, a steely resolve to kill 10% of their men as punishment, and a near-fanatical devotion to the Emperor.

I’ll come in again.

Except the Persians.