Ev idence for DECIMATE   ( 'one in ten')

Jesse Sheidlower jester at PANIX.COM
Tue Jan 8 02:35:29 UTC 2008

On Mon, Jan 07, 2008 at 09:19:54PM -0500, Joel S. Berson wrote:
> [Resending with amended Subject line.]
> At 1/7/2008 02:57 PM, Arnold M. Zwicky wrote:
> >>...
> >so some people have an opinion about the meaning of "decimate", but
> >there's no evidence to indicate that the word actually has that
> >meaning; no one seems to *use* the word that way.  meanwhile, there's
> >tons of evidence, from a great many speakers and writers, in a wide
> >variety of contexts,  that the word has a 'greatly reduce' sense.
> >>...
> >once again: this meaning doesn't occur even there.  it's *mentioned*
> >there, but not (so far as i know) ever *used* there.
> Arnold, doesn't the second group of Doug's quotations, for "kill 10%
> of", change this?

I'm not Arnold, but I am someone who's long been interested in
the usage history of _decimate_. And in my opinion, no, it
doesn't change it, or it barely changes it.

Yes, there's a difference between "_decimate_ has never been
found in the nonhistorical sense 'kill 10% of'" and "Using
full-text databases and scanning the entire body of English
writing, we can find three examples of _decimate_ in the
nonhistorical sense 'kill 10% of'".  But it's a distinction
without a difference. The frequency of this sense is
statistically zero. I suppose it's mildly interesting that
yes, there have finally been found real examples of this, but
still, in the grand scheme of things, it's irrelevant. If I
were revising OED's entry now I would omit this sense or
discuss it only in a note, probably following MWDEU in
criticizing Murray for making it up.

Whether these examples are real or accidental (by "accidental"
I mean that the writer was not intending to use it to refer to
a 10% killing specifically, but just happened to use the
'cause great harm to' sense in this context), it remains the
case that this usage occurs almost exclusively[1], as Arnold
says, in the insistence that the usage exists, rather than in
the usage itself.

[1] And by "almost exclusively" I really mean 'in every case
but the three (or whatever) that have been discovered with
great effort', not 'more often than not' or 'most of the

Jesse Sheidlower

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

More information about the Ads-l mailing list