In the December Vocabula Now Online: Them's Crying Words

Arnold M. Zwicky zwicky at CSLI.STANFORD.EDU
Mon Dec 17 21:51:02 UTC 2007

On Dec 17, 2007, at 1:38 PM, Jon Lighter wrote:

> I must be missing something. OED online has _decimate_ , to execute
> one in every ten (as in the Roman army) from 1600, with the verb
> _decimo_ as etymon.

read the MWDEU entry.  this very specific sense (with its allusion to
Rome, armies, and executions) is certainly attested, but the OED's sub-
entry for reducing by one-tenth was apparently added by Murray to
bridge the semantic development, and *this* sense is the one that's
apparently not attested.

yes, 'reduce by one-tenth' would have been a natural extension, but it
apparently wasn't made (because it wasn't especially useful;
"decimation", taken right from latin, continued to refer to a very
specific cultural practice).  instead, speakers seem to have jumped
right to the more extravagant meaning.


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