Evidence for DECIMATE ('one in ten')

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Wed Jan 9 20:27:45 UTC 2008

At 3:00 PM -0500 1/9/08, Joel S. Berson wrote:
>At 1/9/2008 02:03 PM, Jonathan Lighter wrote:
>>More fun: In its own usage note, the _New Oxford American
>>Dictionary_ says that "It is generally agreed that _decimate_ should
>>not be used to mean 'defeat utterly.'"
>>   So evidently a bunch of super-quasi-illiterates  (students and
>>the sportswriters they have become, I assume) have been doing just
>>that. Citations anyone?
>Have we actually seen recently any examples that mean "defeat
>utterly" in the sense of "no one left"?  I wouldn't use it that way
>myself, reserving "decimate" even in the "loose and rhetorical" sense
>for "devastate, but leave some surviving".

In athletic contexts, it's more often "decimated by injuries" (38,300
google hits; the implication is that the decimatees were still able
to field a team, short-handed though they were), which involves the
usual metaphorical understanding, rather than, say, "the Knicks were
decimated by the Celtics", meaning 'defeated utterly' or
'(metaphorically) slaughtered'.

And in non-athletic endeavors, it would be unusual (if perhaps not
unprecedented) to describe, say, the aborigines of Tasmania as having
been decimated (i.e. completely wiped out).  Let's see...

The natives of Australia and Tasmania were decimated following
contact with Europeans. The 300,000 natives whom whites encountered
in Australia in the 18th century, would dwindle to a pathetic 3,000
by 1930.  Today these peoples account for less than 2%  of the
Australian population and remain oppressed.

Far more than decimated in the strict sense, but still not completely

The indigenous population [of Tasmania], which had been on the island
some 35,000 years, numbered about 5,000 at the time of colonization;
they were subsequently decimated, with only a few mixed-race

Well, OK, but still more than none, assuming the mixed-race survivors count.


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