Literal decimation

Talk to any committed language peever,* and sooner or later you’ll hear about decimate: that it properly means ‘kill one in ten’ and should not be used to mean ‘destroy a large proportion of’ or ‘inflict great harm or damage on’. This is because decimate originally referred to a practice in the Roman army of executing one in ten men in mutinous groups.

It’s the etymological fallacy: the belief that a word’s older or original meaning is the only correct one or is automatically more correct than newer, conventionally accepted ones. Words that repeatedly elicit the fallacy include aggravate, alternative, dilemma, fulsome, refute, and transpire. It’s often a vehicle for pedantic or snobbish triumphalism: I acquired this knowledge, and you didn’t, so I must display it.

Decimate is infamous in editorial circles for this reason. My rule, featured in the A–Z of English usage myths, is that if you say decimate can only mean ‘kill one in ten’, you must also call October ‘December’. (See also: quarantine for any period other than 40 days, etc.) For authoritative discussion, browse the usage notes in a few good dictionaries, starting with AHD.

The broader sense of decimate dates to at least 1660. Since then, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage, it is

the only sense of the word that has continued to thrive in English. It is an emphatic word, and probably owes its continued use in English to the arbitrary ferocity of the Roman practice rather than to its arithmetic.

The original meaning is now vanishingly rare. I looked at 400 random examples of decimate(s/d) in contemporary English – 200 in the NOW Corpus, for professional prose; 200 in the GloWbE Corpus, for less formal styles – and found none with the sense ‘kill one in ten’. To assert this as the sole legitimate meaning is to double down on delusion, and to obliterate (decimate, even) any claims one might make to linguistic authority.

Book cover of 438 Days. The title is large, centred, and semi-transparent: white, shaded blue. Behind it is a dramatic photo of a man at the prow of a boat, facing away into a big wave in a storm at sea. He wears an orange jacket and has dark curly hair. It's raining heavily and in the distance there is a flash of lightning.But decimate in the sense ‘kill one in ten’ is not entirely obsolete. I came across a nice example in Jonathan Franklin’s book 438 Days:

Although sharks are demonized as man-eaters the equation is actually the other way around. For the roughly ten annual fatal shark attacks on earth, the world’s fishermen slaughter approximately twenty million sharks a year, many of which end up as shark steaks on a dinner plate. Severe overfishing has produced the literal decimation of shark populations (only 10 percent remaining) in the last half century, making contemporary shark science akin to extrapolation from the survivors of a global genocide.

I have nothing against the original meaning and was pleased to see it in the wild, though struck too by the need to modify it with literal and clarify it with a parenthetical gloss. Drift gonna drift.

438 Days was described by Outsider magazine as ‘the best survival book in a decade’. Among other things, it’s a gripping case study of human isolation. An apt read for these strange times.


* Some call them grammar nazis, a term I avoid for reasons that I hope are obvious.

20 Responses to Literal decimation

  1. Loved this, but peever that I am, I have to point out that Franklin doesn’t talk about the original 1-in-10 decimation of sharks. He says only 10 percent remain, which is a 9-in-10 depletion. This seems like a good time to quote Humpty Dumpty, “when I want a word to mean something else I pay it extra” (or something like that…). Thanks for an interesting read…

  2. William Hofmeyr says:

    Sure, usage determines meaning. As an editor, however, I do adopt a somewhat more formal – some would say, straight-laced – approach. If there is any chance that misunderstanding might arise, I’ll opt for the older interpretation of “decimate”. And even if I am farting against thunder, “enormity” does not mean “great magnitude”, and “avail” will never mean “make available”.

    • Stan Carey says:

      The potential for genuine misunderstanding seems negligible, though it’s certainly wise to be alert to the possibility, given the word’s history. And I do like your use of the expression ‘farting against thunder’, though I’m surprised by the spelling straight-laced, unless that was tongue-in-cheek – straitlaced being the more formal option and, for now, the more common. Though as Kenneth Wilson wrote in his usage dictionary, assessing it alongside straightjacket and straitjacket, ‘folk etymologies appear to have justified the misspellings’.

    • John Cowan says:

      Well, it might eventually. But if I thought decimate was causing confusion, I’d replace it or ask the author to, depending on local policy.

      As for enormity and enormousness, each has been used historically for both meanings, and well-intentioned attempts to sort them out have failed. Indeed, the original, now obsolete, sense of enormity was simply a deviation from the norm, however small.

  3. William Hofmeyr says:

    Shifts in form and meaning are indeed shoals that confound plain sailing (or plane sailing, if you will), and my aversion to ‘enormity’ as a synonym for ‘magnitude’ flounders once subjected to a rigorous historical analysis.

    I am reminded of the story of the harrumphing ‘purist’ who could not abide the latest translation of the Bible, insisting that since the King James Version was ‘good enough for St Peter’, it was good enough for him.

  4. Sharks aside, let’s hope we have no real pressing reason to add “nonagesimate” to our vocabulary.

  5. maceochi says:

    If drift gonna drift, then peevers gonna peeve. I think there are a couple of nuances here that are worth mentionning. First, people like to peeve about decimate because its original 1-in-10 meaning is far more visible than the hidden original meanings in aggravate, etc., and even quarantine, as we have common words with dec- to do with ten, but not really a lot with quarant- to do with forty. So it seems more natural that a word with dec- in the beginning should have a clear connection to the number ten. Second, the people expressing this peeve are unlikely to all be in positions of vast linguistic power, forcing everyone who uses decimate the “wrong” way to change it. it’s just a peeve, often a bit of harmless complaining.

    You say such people think that they are superior because they have acquired knowledge they presume others have not. Have you considered they might be peeved because they don’t like words being used “illogically” (as they see it)? All this is not to defend such thinking, much of which is specious. I have a bit of a problem with the equation of peeving about language (often a mere pastime) and snobbery. The two don’t always go hand in hand.

    • Stan Carey says:

      On the visibility of dec-: yes, and hence the parallel I drew with December. Though the ‘rule’ is tongue-in-cheek, I’m struck by the fact that peeving about decimate is perennial, while peeving about the ‘illogical’ names of certain months is practically non-existent. Is it that decimate-peevers have not noticed the same issue with December & co.? Maybe month-names’ etymologies are better at hiding in plain sight. But I’m not convinced that such complaining is harmless. It can make people feel unsure about their use of language, and this can have knock-on effects. It’s unkind.

      You’ve misread my point about motivation: I didn’t assume (or imply) the direct relationship between peeving and snobbery that you think I did. I said that such peeving is ‘often a vehicle for pedantic or snobbish triumphalism’. Often ≠ always. And ‘pedantic’ covers the issue of logic. (So yes, I did consider it.) In this case motivation based on pedantry is probably more common than snobbery, but I have no data on this, so I didn’t want to get into relative proportions.

      Literally is a similar case in some ways, since it explicitly invites literal interpretation. Peeving about it is far more common than peeving about decimate presumably in large part because the usage is so much more frequent and because its desired meaning is even more transparent.

      • maceochi says:

        Sorry for misreading you!

        I suppose people are not going to peeve about December as much because it was at least the tenth month of the year at some point, and peeving about it is not going to change he official names of the year. That would be quite the crusade!

        I think the word literally has been a literal joke since it began. It’s almost pointless to peeve about it. It’s literally always used figuratively, you could argue!

        • Stan Carey says:

          I don’t think people are declining to peeve about December because they know the history: it seems more likely to me that they don’t. And the futility of their crusades has never stopped them before!

          Re ‘almost pointless’: indeed – and yet! No doubt the amount of literally-peeving will ebb in the years to come, but I bet it’ll still be a popular hobby for some people generations from now (if human civilisation is still around). That’s despite the fact that it has been used non-literally for literally centuries, including in canonical literature.

          • Antony Shugaar says:

            By the way, happy to see the October and the December mentions for the numbers of the months but as a classicist and a September baby, I’d point out that it’s Sept- Oct- Nov- and Dec- when you’re talking about the -embers. And I think they got moved over because Julius and Augustus wanted months all their own, right? Or Augustus wanted one and thought it was only considerate to give Uncle Julius one. And if the Greeks had won all the various wars (we’d all be speaking Greek now, heh heh), I’d have been born in Heptember, right? (as in, a HEX wrench has SIX sides and a HERPETOLOGIST studies SERPENTS, etc. etc.) Just love seeing those hidden mechanisms. Did you see Lane Greene’s satori about “don” and “doff” being opposites, coming as they do from “do on” and “do off”?

          • Stan Carey says:

            Yes, I love an etymology hidden in plain sight. I saw Greene’s epiphany but was already familiar with those etymologies; I can’t remember from where. Another one I like is the ‘swear’ in answer, in the sense of a formal declaration.

  6. mikepope says:

    Anne Curzan has suggested “grammandos” for peevers. But “peevers” and John McIntyre’s “peeververein” seem like excellent terms.

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