"Decimated" - what is the word we really want?

Yes, people use the word “decimated” to mean, roughly, reduced to one tenth the original size, rather than reduced by one tenth the original size, when the second one is the technically correct definition.

“The regiment was decimated” should mean that if the regiment started out at 1000 men it now has 900 men.

But if the regiment now has only 100 men, is there a word that means that, more or less precisely?

Seems doubtful. We only have the term “decimated” because it stems from a specific Roman punishment. If they’d had a different punishment where nine out of ten soldiers were killed then we’d have a word for that too.

Personally, I’ve never heard anyone outside of academia use the word to mean “reduced by one tenth,” and I’ve never heard ANYONE use it to mean “reduced to one tenth.”

In ‘real life’ I’ve only ever heard it used to mean “very badly beaten/damaged/destroyed.”

There probably isn’t a specific word for that level of destruction, but using decimated for ‘almost annihilated’ annoys me as well, sometimes you’re really better off not knowing the original definition of a word!

Yea, outside the context of talking about disciplining Roman legions, decimated just means “badly damaged”. It works as well for a loss of 90% as any other large fraction.

Lots of words that once had specific, technical meanings now have figurative meanings: “Decimate” is one of them (it’s been used figuratively in English for at least 4 centuries). To reduce a legion by killing one tenth of its men was a brutal, destructive punishment, so it’s not at all suprising to see the word used to describe other brutal, destructive actions. “Dilapidate” means to destroy a structure by removing stones, but no one is surprised to hear of a wooden structure that is “dilapidated,” after all. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the Romans used “decimate” figuratively from time to time, too. After all, in the Roman legions, centurions commanded 80 men, not 100.

IMAO, most people use “decimate” in place of “devastate”.

Well, if decimate means “reduce by one-tenth” and quintate means “reduce by one-fifth,” what’s the Latin for 9/10ths? That-ate oughta do it.


I use it all the time to mean “throw out all but every Nth item”, where N might be 2, 10, or some other integer. That’s a very specific meaning in signal processing, though.

It literally burns me up when people misuse “decimate” that way.

I see what you did there.


I’m guessing someone (i.e. Roddy) read the latest Julian Barnes book (Levels of Life). I didn’t get what he was saying at first, as I didn’t realize decimate made reference to a 10th, though of course now it seems pretty obvious.



If people misuse a word to the point that it’s incorrect application is actually what people think it actually means, has the meaning of the word changed?

When enough people started to use the word “silly” not to mean “holy and good,” but rather to mean “thoughtless,” it became sensible to not use the word in its original sense. For that matter, when people stopped using the word “nice” to mean “foolish” and started using it to mean “pleasant,” it became wise to use that word only in the new sense, to avoid confusion. Words change meanings all the time (people rarely use the word “flagrant” in its literal sense (it means “on fire”), and in spite of the obvious etymological clues, people rarely use the word “quarantine” to mean a period of forty days).

ok, decimate is so very specific though. just as quarantine is. i think decimate should be used in the context that most people use it for, but, it having such a specific origin, it makes it an interesting question. :slight_smile:

Or “World War Z”, which describes the Russians decimating their own conscripts in order to immediately instill loyalty. Brooks specifically points out the literal definition of the word in that section.

A word, regardless of the history of the collection of symbols used to notate it in a writing system, has no inherent meaning. Whatever meaning it can be said to have is through the agreement of a body of speakers. As any given group of speakers ages and evolves, so too will the meanings of the words they use.

It seems very odd to me to observe people communicating without any difficulty and conclude they are somehow misusing words.

Of course everyone knows a quarantine is for people suspected of infection whereas *isolation * is for people actually infected.

Really, what movie or TV show would quarantine an infected person?

Yes, I know I’m being nitpicky. Isn’t that what this thread is about?