[ADS- L] Ev id ence for DECIMATE   ( 'one in ten')

Douglas G. Wilson douglas at NB.NET
Tue Jan 8 16:52:05 UTC 2008

>The real question when interpreting these quotes, for me, is
>not "if we go in armed with some preconception, how can we
>twist these to make it fit," but rather "what can we assume
>from the citational evidence?" If I took all of these quotes
>and rewrote them by changing "decimate" to "frobnitz", so we
>had "The Roman Church was worse than frobnitzed by the fierce
>persecution," there's no possibility that anyone would argue
>for a 'kill one in ten' reading.

That's one approach, and I think it's useful especially for isolated
instances and "first citations" where there is not much historical context.

"Decimate" is not a word without context; it's a word which
historically and etymologically seems to have meant "take a tenth" in
various applications. So the question which I have addressed is,
more-or-less, "In such-and-such instance, which of the following
appears to be the most likely meaning? (A) Reduce by [about] 10%; (B)
Reduce by an arbitrary large percentage; (C) Don't know, or other."
My answer: Particularly in the mid 19th century, it seems that (A)
was a fairly prevalent minority meaning.

Of course if one begins with the preconception that (A) has always
been entirely or nearly nonexistent, one can force the (A)-type
readings into (B) ... at least mostly. And certainly there are many
ambiguous ones.

However among my examples there is one referring to a reduction of
about 9% as "nearly decimated", another referring (with some
ambiguity) to about an 11% reduction as "more than decimated". These
(and others) indicate (to me) that the "reduce by [about] 10%"
meaning was almost certainly intended in some cases. Given this, and
an open mind, I think a lot of other cases appear -- if not
absolutely decisive individually -- more compatible with (A) than with (B).



1884: <<when last they were quartered here they were twice-decimated
by cholera, and left a fifth of their regiment in the cemetery here.>>


1850: << Geneva was decimated: two thousand died out of a population
of twenty thousand.>>

-- Doug Wilson

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