DECIMATE (one more time)

Arnold M. Zwicky zwicky at CSLI.STANFORD.EDU
Mon Jan 7 17:45:47 UTC 2008

On Jan 7, 2008, at 8:53 AM, James Smith wrote:

> I'm getting confused by this discussion.  Is it the
> contention of this discussion that "decimate" does not
> and never has meant killing one in ten; that such a
> concept is totally foreign to the origin of this word
> and has been invented in recent times to match the
> word with a spurious etymology?

i don't know how you got this idea.  i summarized the MWDEU discussion
some time ago, and ben zimmer posted a longer discussion on his blog
(he posted the url here).

though there are some other senses of "decimate", the first one
(citations from 1600 on) that's relevant here is this one, from the OED:

   Milit. To select by lot and put to death one in every ten of (a
body of soldiers guilty of mutiny or other crime): a practice in the
ancient Roman army, sometimes followed in later times.

this very specific sense, referring to a specific cultural practice,
continues in use, and was sometimes extended a bit.  MWDEU:

   _decimate_ has seldom meant "to destroy every tenth man" in
English, and then only in historical references.

from 1663 on, the OED has citations for "the only sense of the word
that has continued to thrive in English ... used to denote great loss
of life or serious or drastic reduction in number" (MWDEU).  or more
generally, great reduction in number or amount.

James Murray inserted a definition "To kill, destroy, or remove one in
every ten of" as a bridge between the Roman military sense and the
'great reduction' sense --

   but he produced no citations to indicate its actual use.
Apparently _decimate_ has never been so used in English.  (MWDEU)

from Richard Grant White in 1868 on, however, people have been
claiming that this (or the somewhat extended sense 'reduce in number
or amount by one-tenth') is the original and only true sense of the
word.  (if so, it's not a particularly useful word.)


> James D. SMITH                 |If history teaches anything
> South SLC, UT                  |it is that we will be sued
> jsmithjamessmith at     |whether we act quickly and decisively
>                               |or slowly and cautiously.
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