What Does “Decimate” Mean?

Unknown.jpegToday, we use decimate to mean destroying the greater part of something. That is a correct usage, except according to the few pedants who still insist on its original meaning.

In Roman times, decimate meant to kill every tenth soldier as a lesson to the remaining soldiers, many of whom were deserting the army. (It strikes me as somewhat counterproductive to kill all those soldiers, thereby ending up with even fewer men in addition to the ones who had already deserted.)

Decimate comes from the Latin word decimare, meaning to destroy or take one tenth. The word for 10 in Latin is decem (with a hard c).

All languages change over time, depending on common usage.

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2 Comments

Filed under All things having to do with the English language

2 responses to “What Does “Decimate” Mean?

  1. Douglas Clark

    My understanding is that decimation was a punishment (rarely) used by the Roman generals against their soldiers if they had not fought hard enough. They were made to count off in groups of ten, and each group would draw lots with the loser being killed by the other nine. This was especially horrifying because soldiers fought so close to one another that it was like killing ones own brother. I guess I’m one of those pedants on the meaning but I’ve yet to correct anyone!

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    • Douglas, thanks so much for your fascinating comment. Not being steeped in Roman history, I was not aware of the process by which these executions took place. You are not a pedant; you are well informed. By “pedant,” I meant (sarcastically, sorry) people who accept only the original meaning of “decimate” and not the more colloquial use.

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