Definitional quibbles

Continuing the discussion from Rats vs. Easter Islanders: How the Islanders (sort of) won:

I know that’s what it originally meant, but we don’t really need a specific word for destroying ten percent of something any more. (I do think we needed ‘awesome’, but alas, that’s been diluted.)

I find it a useful term to use for something that’s been suddenly drastically reduced, but not entirely destroyed.

I actually thought it meant to kill 9 out of 10 - ie if you started with 100, move the decimal point and you have 10 left.

Edit - Learned something, thanks :smiley:

No, it really is to kill 1 in 10. The misunderstanding is common.

Part of the problem is that people use decimate when they mean devastate. Or when they don’t know the meaning of either word.

I will point out, though, that killing 1 in 10 is pretty darned bad when you’re talking about killing humans in non-war situations.

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Interesting, when I look it up, the “historical” definition of decimate is indeed:

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

I see people complaining about its use on the net so often (and they invariably point to the original definition, of a punishment inflicted on a Roman legion) I thought everyone knew where it came from.

Which, now that I think about it, is obviously not a very smart thing for me to think, because otherwise why are people complaining about its improper use?

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Not enough of us took Latin in high school, clearly.

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I just thought the pedant-industrial complex (of which I am a fully paid and subscribing member) had more reach.


If the pedant-industrial complex had that much reach, we wouldn’t have suffered through several decades of “nukular”.

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You’re totally right. The word has morphed into a similar but different meaning. I am not OCD about most things, but some times some little stupid thing will bug the hell out of me. On more than one occasion I have found myself deleting “decimate” from something I wrote and used something else.

And technically, I am correct. The best kind of correct!


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