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#2657 - 05/20/00 09:56 PM Decimate  
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Rubrick Offline
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Good evening everyone,

Is it just me or do I detect that if an authority/public figure incorrectly uses a word then the vast majority of others (including their peers) jump on the bandwagon and this misuse snowballs?

There is one word in particular which is misused quite occasionally on television and in newsprint. That word is 'decimate'.

Its literal meaning, and excuse me as I do not have the benefit of a dictionary to hand to give the precise definition, is 'to reduce by one tenth'. It was first used to describe the Roman practice of killing one tenth of their or their opponents' troops and comes from the Latin 'deci' menaing ten.

It is confused with, I suppose, 'devastated'. Most examples I can give relate to reports from war areas (so there are plenty as I write) and come in the form of 'The enemy positions were completely decimated'. Ten times over, I can only presume.

Has anyone else noticed this malapropism in reporting or elsewhere?


#2658 - 05/20/00 10:54 PM Re: Decimate  
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lusy Offline
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The misunderstanding and misuse of this word is not just occasional in this neck of the woods, it is quite widespread. I know all about English being a living language, but I can't abide the degradation of our language throiugh ignorance, especiallly when it comes about, as you suggest, by people picking up a "buzz-word" they don't understand and using it simply for effect. BTW, loved your example of "completely decimated".

Rgds, lusy


#2659 - 05/21/00 01:59 AM Re: Decimate  
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tsuwm Offline
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this too shall pass
this is widely accepted usage, in the narrow sense of widespread killing. (ugh, parse that!) here is a link to a typical usage discussion:

http://www.bartleby.com/64/C003/091.html

http://members.aol.com/tsuwm

#2660 - 05/21/00 07:14 AM Re: Decimate  
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juanmaria Offline
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Malaga, Spain.
Although I cannot remember any examples I use to get pretty annoyed when things like what you’re telling about ‘decimate’ happens, and it happens a lot. Lately I’m trying to be more tolerant and think that it must be the that way language evolves and all that crap (sorry but I’m reading ‘Catcher in the rye’ and it’s sort of ‘catchy’) but, anyway, it keeps bothering me.
Since, due to my lack of knowledge, I can’t write without a dictionary at hand I’m going to transcript the definition I have of ‘decimation’ that fully agrees with your posting.


decimate —tr. v.-mat·ed., -mat·ing., -mates. 1. To destroy or kill a large part of. 2. To select by lot and kill one in every ten of. [Lat. decimare, decimat- < decimus, tenth < decem, ten.] dec'i·ma´tion n.

USAGE: Decimate originally meant to kill every tenth person, a punishment sometimes inflicted by Roman commanders. The meaning has been extended to include the destruction of any large proportion of a group: Famine decimated the population. The Usage Panel accepts this extension but considers that decimate should not be used to describe the destruction of a single person, or an entire group, or any specified percentage other than one-tenth; avoid a sentence such as The famine decimated 37 per cent of the population.

Microsoft Bookshelf © 1987 - 1992 Microsoft Corp. All Rights Reserved. The American Heritage Dictionary and Electronic Thesaurus are licensed from Houghton Mifflin Company. Copyright © 1986, 1987 by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved. Based upon Roget's II: The New Thesaurus.


Juan Maria.

#2661 - 05/21/00 01:59 PM Re: Decimate  
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tsuwm Offline
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from the link I gave above:

Sixty-six percent of the Usage Panel accepts this extension in the sentence 'The Jewish population of Germany was decimated by the war', even though it is common knowledge that the number of Jews killed was much greater than a tenth of the original population. But when the meaning is further extended to include large-scale destruction other than killing, as in 'The supply of fresh produce was decimated by the accident at Chernobyl', only 26 percent of the panel accepts the usage.
The American Heritage® Book of English Usage. 1996


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#2662 - 05/21/00 06:43 PM Re: Decimate  
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juanmaria Offline
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Malaga, Spain.
I read your post after having posted mine and both usage notes make me understand that ‘decimate’ is now acceptable for an undetermined number of casualties but ‘completely decimated’ or ‘decimated 37 per cent of the population’ are not acceptable. At least don’t sound good to me.
The thing that your link -great site by the way- has confirmed me is that ‘decimate’ was a disciplinary action taken by the roman chiefs against their own troops. I was pretty sure but this article confirmed it.


Juan Maria.

#2663 - 05/22/00 12:42 PM Re: Decimate  
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Rubrick Offline
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Ah, but you see, this is my point. An English word which has clear meaning has been broadly accepted to have yet another, and quite contradictory, one! From the above posts I can see that those who determine the official parlance of the English language - including the Usage Panel (who they?) - clearly have no problem in adopting incorrect usage of a word if the majority of people do so. To use a parallel example - there are not just a few people doing it, there are quite a few!


#2664 - 05/22/00 01:13 PM Re: shifting meanings  
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here's a word which has undergone a radical shift which bothers me: chauvinist

This comes from French and originally referred to an overly patriotic veteran of the Napoleonic wars; now it is used almost exclusively (at least in the US) as a synonym for 'sexist'! Most folks think that 'male chauvinist' is a pleonasm!! (a superfluity of words, for those of you not following along at home :)

I was reminded of this by today's Random House Word-of-the-Day; here's the link, but it only points to the the current word:

http://www.randomhouse.com/wotd/

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#2665 - 05/22/00 01:20 PM Re: shifting meanings  
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Rubrick Offline
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Congratulations on your graduation to enthusiast, Michael. I guess this makes you a 'chauvinist' of sorts (purely in its original form, of course!).


#2666 - 05/22/00 03:52 PM Re: usage panels  
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"including the Usage Panel (who they?)"

well, here's the link to the American Heritage Dictionary Usage Panel (it's quite an interesting list!):

http://www.bartleby.com/64/12.html

it is also instructive to learn how they reach a consensus on usage questions:

http://www.bartleby.com/64/13.html

http://members.aol.com/tsuwm

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