Evidence for DECIMATE ('one in ten')

Douglas G. Wilson douglas at NB.NET
Thu Jan 10 03:48:28 UTC 2008

Here a writer (1886) responds to "superfine" criticism ascribed to "a
modern historian".


<<A modern historian -- the most phenomenally bad writer among great
authors of the present generation -- has lately given us some strange
examples of this superfine critical tendency. He objects, for
example, to the phrase "to decimate," as applied to the ravages of
disease or warfare. As every English writer and speaker uses this
phrase, it means simply and solely exactly what it says -- to reduce
by killing on the average about every tenth man. Nobody, probably,
except this good historian, ever employed a word of such transparent
etymology in any other than this purely etymological sense. From the
very first, it meant that and nothing else. In its ordinary military
signification, it was applied to the system of selecting every tenth
man for punishment after a general mutiny. But it may just as well
mean taking every tenth man in any other way, as by fever or
rifle-shot; and it does mean that in ordinary English. Yet about such
a very simple and transparent meaning there must needs be haggling
and mystification: "This misuse of the word 'decimate,' though it has
sometimes made its way into the pages of really good writers, is one
of the very worst cases of the abuse of language." Who has abused or
misused the word ? Nobody, so far as I know, except the critic. ....
Especially does his righteous wrath burn bright against the
collocation, "literally decimated." I plead guilty myself to having
frequently applied this peccant phrase, in newspaper leaders, to
armies in action, and I am perfectly certain that I always meant by
it just what I said, that the bullets selected for punishment on the
average one-tenth of the entire body. It never occurred to me that
even a microscopic critic could misunderstand so plain an expression.
Yet even when one uses "to decimate" metaphorically, in the rough
sense of to punish severely, or to destroy a very large proportion,
there is surely nothing very wrong or out-of-the-way in the usage.
Slight exaggeration and slight metonomy [sic] are familiar factors in
the genesis of vocabulary.>>

This piece was excerpted in NYT (1885).

I suppose that the "modern historian" was Edward A. Freeman and that
this is his "superfine criticism":


... in which he complains about the broad use of "decimate" and also
about the, uh, broad or non-literal sense of "literally" (which still
has its antagonists today).

At my naive glance, it seems that Freeman was mostly objecting to
"decimate" referring to an arbitrary large reduction rather than to a
10% reduction. The responding writer quoted above seems to be
asserting that he and most writers _do_ mean 10% reduction, with some
allowance for imprecision or hyperbole.

My own impression is that some writers meant "10% reduction", others
"10% reduction, or thereabouts", others "something like 10%, or
more", others "90% reduction" (this definition given explicitly by,
e.g., Lord Byron), others "any large reduction, such as 10% or 90%".

-- Doug Wilson

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