peta (peta_andersen) wrote,
peta
peta_andersen

Decimate


Joe's sitting next to me watching Battlestar Galactica. Now, though I'm not a fan of the show - I've never successfully stayed awake during an episode before, I've been asking questions on and off throughout this one. And what I've learned so far is this: Joe can't misuse the word "decimated".

Part of me rejoices at this - I'm married to a man as pedantic as me. And part of me just finds it funny, especially since "decimated" is not one of my trigger words; even though I'm aware of the way it should be used, and the way it's usually used, I don't make the distinction (a very rare thing for me!).

So, what does "decimated" actually mean? Interestingly, "decimated" has two meanings - the original, and a created one (the first definition) that's grown out of general misusage (other examples of this include "irregardless" and "inflammable"). So, in the words of my trusty OED:

1 kill, destroy, or remove a large percentage or part of : the project would decimate the fragile wetland wilderness | the American chestnut, a species decimated by blight.

• drastically reduce the strength or effectiveness of (something) : plant viruses that can decimate yields.

2
historical kill one in every ten of (a group of soldiers or others) as a punishment for the whole group.

USAGE Historically, the meaning of the word decimate is ‘kill one in every ten of (a group of people).’ This sense has been superseded by the later, more general sense ‘kill or destroy a large percentage or part of,’ as in : the virus has decimated the population. Some traditionalists argue that this and other later senses are incorrect, but it is clear that these extended senses are now part of
standard English. It is sometimes also argued that decimate should refer to people and not to things or animals such as weeds or insects. It is generally agreed that decimate should not be used to mean 'defeat utterly.'
And the result? Joe is a traditionalist, and I can say whatever I want (with only the tiniest twinge of guilt).
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Tags: english, english language, oed, oxford english dictionary, words
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