Ev idence for DECIMATE   ( 'one in ten')

Douglas G. Wilson douglas at NB.NET
Tue Jan 8 03:40:19 UTC 2008

>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.

On what basis is this assessment made?

The few examples I presented were not scrounged with titanic effort
from among thousands of citations, they were retrieved from Google
Books in maybe 30 minutes by an amateur dilettante.

I just now searched Google Books for "decimated" from 1850 to 1870,
requiring limited preview at least (no snippets). About 800 items
appeared. I don't have time to look at 800 so I went down the list
and took the first 50 which had the sense "kill a portion" or so. I
tried to exclude duplicates and I excluded incomprehensible and
illegible results as well as those with other meanings (related,
e.g., to tithing or weights and measures) and those where the word
itself was under discussion.

Here are the probable meanings according to my judgement:

A. Kill a large arbitrary fraction
B. Kill [about] 1/10
C. A or B (I can't tell which)
D. Kill 1/10 as military punishment
E. Kill 9/10


A 23 (46%)
B 10 (20%)
C 8 (16%)
D 6 (12%)
E 3 (6%)

Anybody else can perform a comparable experiment. Results will vary,
of course. In particular the above A, B, C groups can change
considerably in relative size depending on how hard one tries to
force his favorite interpretation on each example.

-- Doug Wilson

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