El Reg decimates English language

Our beloved mother tongue reduced by one tenth to rubble

Ah yes, it's the old "decimate" controversy - a hobby horse ridden so hard by the prescription lobby that the legs have pretty well fallen off the poor bloody animal.

Make no mistake, this is a serious business. No journo worth his or her salt has resisted the temptation to bore the arse off some pub audience with the little-known fact that decimate means "to reduce by one tenth", and anyone who says otherwise obviously never attended hackery school where the first lesson is dedicated entirely to the term, its correct deployment and how an insight into its etymology grants a licence to smug your drinking companions into lexicographical submission.

In fact, and as any ful no, decimate has two meanings: the Latin-derived original sense and the contemporary alternative. Here's what Merriam Webster has to say on the latter:

3 a: to reduce drastically especially in number <cholera decimated the population> b: to cause great destruction or harm to <firebombs decimated the city> <an industry decimated by recession>

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language chips in with: "Decimate originally referred to the killing of every tenth person, a punishment used in the Roman army for mutinous legions. Today this meaning is commonly extended to include the killing of any large proportion of a group."

Chambers, meanwhile, confirms:

decimate verb (decimated, decimating) to reduce greatly in number; to destroy a large part or number of something. decimation noun. decimator noun.
ETYMOLOGY: 17c in this sense1; 16c in historical sense 'to select by lot and execute one in every ten': from Latin decimare to take a tenth person or thing, from decem ten.

Not good enough for ya? Try the Guardian's Style Guide, which says that decimate is "nowadays used to mean destroy".

Here's some confirmation, gleaned from the interweb: try Macquarie Marshes decimated by earth work projects, Crews recover 3 bodies, locate 3 more in Georgia sugar refinery decimated by explosion or Czech bee population decimated by parasite.

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