Decimating news from the front lines of language
The English language holds no shortage of pitfalls for writers. With so many cognates and words that are almost-but-not-quite the same, it’s no wonder that mistakes riddle our communications. Sometimes these errors are accidental; other times the misuse reflects a downright ornery refusal to stick within accepted usage guidelines.
Editors may sneer, proof-readers pooh-pooh, and obsessive-compulsive readers object vociferously, but that doesn’t stem the tide of misuse and abuse. Nevertheless, the war of the words continues, with one side callously indifferent and the other deeply committed to preserving the rules as they exist.
Every so often, however, the battle lines are redrawn in a surprising manner. Now we have a situation where a word was used incorrectly for so many years that the arbiters of linguistic rectitude have finally conceded the fight, giving in to the mis-users at long last*.
Decimate, a word with clear roots that should make its meaning obvious (but definitely didn’t), now officially carries among its accepted definitions the one that many people have long thought it held: to cause immense damage; destroy; devastate. Merriam-Webster Dictionary includes these as alternative but perfectly valid meanings for the word:
a : to reduce drastically especially in number
b : to cause great destruction or harm to
“That doesn’t even make sense!”
These are the cries of the embattled language lovers intent on educating the wider public about the many sound reasons why decimate can mean only one thing, which does not include the definition cited above.
You see, decimate comes from the same root as words like decimal, dodecahedron, decapod, and decathlon. That root comes from the Greek word deka, or ten. Decimate comes to us via Latin, in which decimus means “tenth” and decem means ten. (If you’re suddenly puzzled by the fact that December is the twelfth month of the year, you’ll be pleased to know that in an earlier calendar, December was the tenth month and therefore made sense.)
Decimate originally referred to the habit of punishing severe misbehavior in the Roman army by killing one out of every ten soldiers in the offending unit. (An effective tactic for discouraging mutinies, if harsh.) In English, until recently the word was correctly used to indicate a level of damage that reflected approximately ten percent of the total. “The storm decimated our state’s apple crop,” for example, meant that it wiped out about ten percent of the fruit.
Now, however, that logical flow of etymology has been tossed out the window, along with all those delicious apples. Since decimate was almost invariably associated with devastation of one sort or another, people have consistently assumed it meant “a whole heckuva lot of damage,” and now it does.
What’s a rigid linguist to do? In this struggle, as in so many others like it, my best advice is to go with the flow. The word as you knew it is lost, so pick another that’s often misused and get busy educating the uninformed before it’s too late.
* The truth is that this isn’t terribly uncommon. Definitions change over time, just like usage standards and punctuation styles. In most cases that change happens gradually and almost unnoticeably. This time, it’s more dramatic simply because language purists have been trying so hard and for so long to correct misuse of decimate, but lost their fight in the end. They usually do.
As a language purist myself, I am of course devastated, but not decimated, by the way our language is changed for the worse by whippersnappers who don’t know what word roots mean. However, I’m old and old people have been saying this for centuries, so going with the flow probably causes fewer ulcers and apoplexies than any other way. Write on!