Evidence for DECIMATE ('one in ten')

Benjamin Zimmer bgzimmer at BABEL.LING.UPENN.EDU
Wed Jan 9 20:25:56 UTC 2008

On Jan 9, 2008 3:00 PM, Joel S. Berson <Berson at att.net> 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".

_Garner's Modern American Usage_ (from which the NOAD usage note is
derived, by the way), gives a couple of examples with this sense:

"When he did reach Preston Flats the town looked not only uninhabited
but deserted, as if plague had swept through and decimated it." Cormac
McCarthy, _Outer Dark_ 131 (1968)

"Incidentally, this particular cyclamen is one of the species that had
been nearly totally decimated in its native Mediterranean lands by
mindless digging for commercial gain." N.Y. Times, 3 Jan. 1993.

--Ben Zimmer

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

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