Decimated ≠ destroyed

People nearly always use the word “decimated” to mean something synonymous to “totally destroyed” or “mostly destroyed.” This is incorrect.

I used to do this too, so I don’t blame people. But when my pal Peter Drekmeier enlightened me years ago, I stopped using the word wrong.

The actual meaning of decimated is to reduce anything by one in ten, or by ten percent. The prefix “deci” is a hint. The word’s origin apparently comes from the ancient Romans, who occasionally imposed military discipline by killing one man out of every ten in a legion. Nice guys, those Roman leaders.

So anyway, it irks me a bit when I hear people on NPR or someplace saying something like “The oil spill has decimated the Gulf shore…” when it’s unlikely they meant the oil spill has reduced the shore by ten percent.

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  1. Andi
    Posted July 28, 2010 at 4:54 am | Permalink

    Uh oh. I’m guilty. But now I’m in the know and will never misuse “decimated” again. Thanks!

    • Posted July 28, 2010 at 7:43 pm | Permalink

      Don’t feel bad. Like I said, I was guilty of misusing decimated too, until Peter clued me in.

      Hello to the Frays!

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