John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and other manifestations of human frailty. Comments welcome. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to jemcintyre@gmail.com, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/news/mcintyre/blog/ and now at www.baltimoresun.com/news/language-blog/.

Monday, March 8, 2010

More than one in ten is OK


Etymology can suggest, but it cannot command.

The Latin word decem, “ten,” is the root of decimal and also decimate, which originally identified that fine old Roman custom of disciplining a mutinous legion by executing one man out of every ten.

Some finicky self-appointed guardians of language have insisted that decimate should retain its one-in-ten sense in all contexts, but English has moved on. Decimate is perfectly acceptable standard English in the sense of “to kill or destroy a large part of.” A population can be decimated ¾ substantially reduced, not precisely by a tenth, but not eliminated altogether ¾ in the outbreak of a disease.

That degree of license does not, however, mean that anything goes, as can be seen in the initial paragraph of a recent Baltimore Sun article:

An Anne Arundel County firefighter admitted Wednesday to emptying the bank accounts of a regional firefighter charity when he was its treasurer, a crime that has decimated the organization.

One is left wondering what happened. Has the organization lost a great part of its members? Or is the writer trying to indicate financial hardship? Or what? It seems likely that the word for which the writer was reaching, and missed, is devastate.

Another misuse of decimate is in the sense of “to defeat utterly,” as in the warmongering hyperbole favored by the sports pages.

If you can avoid false precision on one side and sloppiness of expression on the other, decimate is still a perfectly useful word. 

2 comments:

  1. Oscar the StatuetteMarch 8, 2010 at 9:50 AM

    I am decimated by this revelation.

    ReplyDelete
  2. In a programming class, we were told that the practice was to line up all the soldiers in a circle. You kill every tenth one but there's no "end of the line." You just keep killing every tenth soldier around the circle, until only one survives. A gory sort of eeny meeny miney moe, and a way to interpret "decimate" as "kill almost everyone."

    The assignment was to calculate, given any starting number of soldiers, which line position you should take to guarantee your survival.

    I have no idea if this ever was a real practice or just something some computer scientist thought up after getting beaten up by a ROTC bully.

    ReplyDelete