Decimate: A Common Word That Many of Us Misuse

In late 2011, one of NPR’s avid listeners, John Hicks-Courant, reached out to the station with a grammar concern about the word decimate:

“NPR’s journalists routinely use the word ‘decimate’ when they mean to denote ‘completely ruined or destroyed’. ‘Decimate’ means to kill every tenth person or soldier as a means of mass punishment. How in the world can a town or country be decimated? It can’t possibly,” he wrote.

Hicks-Courant’s note led the news organization to revisit its use of decimate, a word their journalists used on-air 44 times that year. NPR also discovered that Hicks-Courant was at least partially correct.

According to Merriam-Webster, there are two definitions of decimate: “to cause great destruction or harm to” and “to select by lot and kill every tenth man of”. Decimate was first used in 1600 and was derived from the Latin word decimatus, which meant the “the removal or destruction of one-tenth”.

Hicks-Courant is correct in calling out NPR’s use of the word — if the original definition of the word is viewed as the only meaning. When the word first appeared in 1600, it was in A Treatise of Ireland by John Dymmok. During this time, the word was used to describe a method of mass killing which was used in ancient Rome. However, it was also used to describe 17th-century taxation (“to exact a tax of 10 percent from”).

Though the controversy surrounding decimate seems like a relatively modern problem, Oxford Dictionaries cites early confusion about the definition. The word’s first use in the taxation sense was noted in 1606, in Henoch Clapham’s A Manual of the Bibles Doctrine. Thus, with only six years between the first recorded uses of both definitions, it’s difficult to declare that the mass killing definition was the first.

There’s little documentation of when decimate’s meaning shifted to its modern-day usage. But there’s plenty of discussion about why this new meaning should be permitted. Merriam-Webster argues that the original definition only stands in discussions about ancient Rome or 17th-century taxation. Also, the dictionary publisher insists that English definitions often shift over time. While it’s important to acknowledge the original definitions, it’s also crucial to adapt them for use in a modern age.

Oxford University Press suggests decimate is a “skunked term”, meaning it should possibly be retired since its semantic shift makes it difficult to use in either traditional or modern ways.

“Sticking to the older sense confuses those unfamiliar with it, while using the newer sense annoys traditionalists who feel that it is wrong,” writes Ben Zimmer. Decimate finds itself in the company of hopefully, enormity, and fulsome — all words whose semantic shifts have led to usage controversies.

For now, it seems the world of journalism has decided on decimate’s modern meaning. “Report documents how warming climate could decimate Colorado’s ski towns,” reads a headline in the Vail Daily. “Your Turn: Arizona lawmakers want to decimate your groundwater (again),” reads another from AZCentral. The English purists may have to forfeit this argument and accept that the new version of decimate is here to stay.