Evidence for DECIMATE ('one in ten')

David A. Daniel dad at POKERWIZ.COM
Wed Jan 9 23:42:06 UTC 2008

OK, time for me to jump in here and put an end to the madness.

(1) All educated, native speakers of English know that "decimate" means to
wipe out a big number of something.

(2) Some semi-educated, native speakers of English, whenever they hear/read
"decimate" being used as in (1) above, will jump on a popular
hypercorrection (as I believe it has been called in this forum), erroneously
maintaining that "decimate" means destroy/kill one in ten.

(2.1) The last time in general, public, non-academic use I actually heard
this hypercorrection in conversation was at a poker game a while back. I
said my chip stack had been decimated, and Fred said, "Do you know that that
ACTUALLY means you have lost one tenth of your chips?" I did not bother to
reply to Fred as his previous linguistic/etymological pronouncements had
been that "OK" came from "0 (zero) Killed" in the Civil War and "Fuck" was
an abbreviation of "Ford Truck".  (This is, generally, I find, the level of
people who insist on the one-tenth version of "decimate".)

(3) The reason you can find a good number of cites for "decimate" in its
one-in-ten sense is that it has been used incorrectly, especially in the
19th century, by language prigs who were trying to show off that they
"really knew" what "decimate" meant. And you can find cites to this day from
people doing the same thing as Fred: they want to use the word as they
"know" it should be used.

(4) "Decimate" has always had two core meanings in English (well, plus a
third one involving taxation that is obsolete and irrelevant to this

(4.1) Original Meaning: A Roman military commander orders the (usually
random) execution of one tenth of a troop for a perceived crime, such as
mutiny or pinning up Betty Grable posters in the barracks. By this meaning,
and if we are to be truly prescriptivist, you can not, for example,
decimate, in the one-in-ten sense, a forest by cutting one-tenth of its
trees. You can not, for example, decimate, in the one-in-ten sense, a family
by killing a tenth of its members. You can only decimate, in the one-in-ten
sense, a troop of soldiers by ordering the execution of ten percent of their
number, usually by lot, for a perceived infraction. Since this does not
happen too much among English-speaking military commanders these days, the
reference is historical.

(4.2) Current Meaning: To wipe out a large number of people or things.

(5) So, what we have is a word that came into English with a very specific
usage: military commander (originally Roman) orders the execution of one
tenth of a troop. Then, since the word is hanging around and seems to mean
that a whole lot of people/things bite the dust, it comes to mean
"killing/destroying/wiping out a large number or percentage of something".

(6) A vast majority of educated, native speakers of English adopt the new
meaning (because the original meaning is basically useless) and then, from
the woodwork, a few semi-informed language prigs pop up and hypercorrect,
insisting not on the old meaning - as we have seen, the old meaning is very
restricted - but on an extended interpretation of the old meaning as being
"one-in-ten of anything". Just like good old Fred. He used to lecture about
POSH, too, by the way.

Summarizing, to put an end to the madness: (1) Of course you find cites for
"Decimate" as one-in-ten because those folks are either creating the texts
to support their position, or incorrectly using the term due to the
influence of those who think it means one-in-ten; (2) "Decimate" in modern
English means to wipe out a large number or large percentage of something,
and no longer has anything to do with ten percent.

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

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