Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2008/03/04/decimate/

El Reg decimates English language

Our beloved mother tongue reduced by one tenth to rubble

By Lester Haines

Posted in Bootnotes, 4th March 2008 13:09 GMT

Comment It's official: the English language is going to hell in a handcart and if drastic measures are not taken to halt the destruction of our beloved mother tongue then all of the efforts of Nelsonian Jack tars and Spitfire-borne officer pilots to defend this Scepter'd Isle against the forces of barbarism will have been in vain.

That, at least, is according to the chap who recently posted a (rejected) comment decrying the headline to this El Reg piece. Read on:

The Lester Haines artice with this seemingly inane heading "NZ power company decimated by rebranding madness" had no access to reply however...undaunted I have found "elsewhere" to reply!.

The word 'decimated' seems completely irrelevant to anything with in the serpentine article however I study it ..however in valiant defence against the "nouveau cretanism" in language destruction I write a protest.

My protest is against the "for free" types who have no idea of what language springs from or means; those who think that because language has changed it must forever change...even if they have no idea what it means or its correct usuage in the first place.

I refer very much to students, teachers and media since 1970 in particular..Even GW Bush, America's godhead representative, so he has told us by his actions, cannot comprehend correct English language usage. So well advised is he, that his ineptitude gives him the "I'm really very stupid" identifier of pronouncing nuclear as "nucular". What chance does anyone else onboard have in USA with such ignorence at the helm.

The word 'decimated' has been bastardised by the ignorent. It is a word with a precise meaning from a precise history applied predominently to Roman reprisal.It has other parts of speech such as '(to) decimate' (verb), 'decimated' various..'decimation 'noun', 'decimating' adjective/participle/verb and so on...

The word means...and means nothing else..."to cut down (an assembly of people, usually and army or hostages) by a tenth"...not "two tenths" or fifty percent or any other degree or number and neither 'enormously' cut down/diminished/destroyed/reduced nor "totally destroyed" , nor anything else than its singular meaning.

'Decimated' means ONLY 'cut down by a tenth' and was employed in the choosing one one person in ten for reprisals. If you want to say "his forces were reduced by 11000 of the original 15000...the term is NOT decimated.If you want to say one sand castle in 10 was flattened, the term is not decimated..its is a special word with a special history.

Please "NZ power company severely affected by rebranding madness" or some-such. Not 'decimated' !.

'For free' can be 'for nothing', 'free of charge', 'at no cost' , 'at no charge' or 'freely'.

'Free is an adjective, one can find a free seat or (set) free a person or situation but the using of "for free" where an adjective is used as a noun or as an adverb is an indication of ignorence in language.

Do lift your game, old chap....and please, also, the thousands like you.

cheers Tony

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.

Mind you, a plucky few are still using the word as God intended. Under the headline "Sacramento city jobs could be decimated" the Sacramento Business Journal explains2: "Budget problems mean the city of Sacramento is 'facing elimination of approximately 500 positions' in the coming year, according to a report to the City Council released Friday, or nearly one out of every 10 city jobs."

Good show, although we suspect the inclusion here of "nearly" might not satisfy purists. If the total of job losses is not in fact as anticipated, and perhaps even greater, might we suggest the use of inkhorn neologisms "nonimate" or "octomate"?

In summary: decimate is now used to mean "destroy". This is neither incorrect nor is it an outrage against common linguistic decency, and to say otherwise is, frankly, pissing in the wind.

The English language is changing, for better or worse. There are many who view the apparently unstoppable rise of greengrocers apostrophe's3, split infinitives, dangling participles, loss of the aspirated "wh", blah, blah, blah, with a sort of soul-sapping dread.

Back in 1926, however, the famed HW Fowler was chilled enough in his Modern English Usage to acknowledge that the evolution of English was not necessarily leading inexorably to catastrophe. The use of decimate to mean “the destruction in any way of a large proportion of anything reckoned by number” was, he conceded, "natural".

We'll leave it to you lot to ponder George Bush's nucular policy and the scandal of "for free", and conclude by noting that on the matter of "nouveau cretanism", we personally prefer "usuage", "ignorent", "ignorence" rendered as "usage", "ignorant" and "ignorance", but then we're a bit old skool ourselves when it comes to spelling, innit? ®


1 The OED agrees, stating that since the mid-17th century, decimate has been used to mean "destroy or remove a large proportion of".

2 For more on the US battle of decimation, try this article from the Boston Globe.

3 In 1985, Robert Burchfield wrote in his excellent The English Language: "The prevalence of incorrect instances of the use of the apostrophe at the present time....suggests that the time is close at hand when this moderately useful device should be abandoned."