Evidence for DECIMATE ('one in ten')

Mon Jan 7 21:48:01 UTC 2008

        I don't read Fowler to object to the application of "decimate"
to non-humans.  Rather, he says that it can be naturally extended to
"anything reckoned by number."  I believe his objections to the
applications to rabbits and currants are because they were virtually
exterminated and decimated "by as much as 80%," respectively - meanings
arguably difficult to reconcile with the "decim" in "decimate."

        I am not necessarily espousing Fowler's view; in particular, if
my reading is correct, the distinction between destruction of a large
proportion of the population and virtual extermination seems strained.

John Baker

-----Original Message-----
From: American Dialect Society [mailto:ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU] On Behalf
Of Benjamin Zimmer
Sent: Monday, January 07, 2008 3:40 PM
Subject: Re: Evidence for DECIMATE ('one in ten')

On Jan 7, 2008 3:21 PM, Baker, John <JMB at stradley.com> wrote:
>         Arnold, what is your opinion of the view espoused by Fowler?
> He wrote that the application of "decimate" "is naturally extended to
> the destruction in any way of a large proportion of anything reckoned
> by number, e.g., a population may be said to be decimated by a plague.

> But . . . anything that is expressly inconsistent with the proper
sense _(A single frosty night decimated the currants by as much as 80%)_
must be avoided."
> He particularly criticized an example in which "literally decimated"
was used to mean "killed."
> (He also criticized the application of the word to the virtual
> extermination of rabbits by myxomatosis, but he may have been under
> the misapprehension that myxomatosis is 100%
> effective.)

I believe Fowler objected to rabbits being the objects of decimation,
since they (like the currants) are non-human.

More here: http://blog.oup.com/2008/01/decimate/

--Ben Zimmer

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

More information about the Ads-l mailing list