‘Decimate’ Means ‘Reduce by One Tenth’

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The ignoramuses (ignorami?) who write automobile advertisements have declared Chevrolet to be “the most awarded car company in the USA.” And this deplorable diction has been picked up by ignorami all over the place. Diplomas are awarded. Damages are awarded to plaintiffs in lawsuits. Degrees are awarded to worthy recipients. But I have never heard of a car company being awarded, unless it was the prize in some colossal contest.

It’s painful to watch the degradation of the English language, and in the battle against the ignorami, I think those of us who wish to defend it have to pick our battles. For example, I often hear of people “graduating high school” which I take to mean they have graduated from high school. That’s okay with me, I guess. Just one of those changes in usage the the language goes through over time.

And if I knock on your door and you ask “Who is it?” I’m not going to say, “It is I.” I’m not a pedant.

But I really want to draw the line at the word ‘decimate.’ I have heard it used to mean ‘eviscerate,’ devastate,’ or even ‘eradicate,’ when in face it means ‘reduce by one tenth.’ It’s in the root! Ever heard of the Deway decimal system? Has the rainforest been decimated? I wish the damage were that slight.

Decimation was actually a disciplinary measure in the Roman army for units that showed cowardice in battle. Every tenth man was tied to a stake and the rest of the soldiers had to beat them to death. In fact it was rarely used. Marc Antony had to do it to get his legions to fight other Romans during the civil wars.

I guess it bothers me that people hear a word usedand add it to their vocabularies without actually finding out what it means. So if you use the word ‘decimate’ to mean anything other than ‘reduce by one tenth,’ be assured that a small group of erudite people will know that you don’t know what you’re talking about.