A Word, Please: Dogma that's worth decimating

“Decimate” is a cool word. It’s a lot like “devastate,” but with an added flavor and a sense of history that make it feel somehow bigger.

People use it accordingly.

“If a company’s intellectual property is stolen, it could decimate an organization,” the New York Times reported in December.

“Losing [$440 million a year that existing companies pay in gross-receipts taxes] would decimate the Police Department and other essential services,” the Los Angeles Times wrote in October.

“Lions decimate Chargers” a FoxSports.com headline declared on Christmas Day.

All these uses sound pretty good — to me, at least. But not everyone feels the same.

“The devastation of decimate is my pet peeve,” one commenter wrote on an online bulletin board. “This is an old Latin term that means to kill every 10th person; you could extend it to also kill every 10th animal, but you cannot kill a building or a town….The bloody word is devastate or its derivatives. This misuse is so devastating to me, and English teachers everywhere.”

This is a popular view with a kernel of truth at its heart.

“Decimate” does indeed come from the Latin and mean to kill every 10th person. The Roman army would do just that to get a handle on mutinous units, executing one in 10 to get the other nine’s attention.

Happily, this practice didn’t catch on. So when the Roman army faded into history, the word “decimate” lost its true raison d’etre. Yet the word lived on, reaching a point where many of the people who use it don’t even know about the whole one-in-10-rubbed-out thing.

An observer armed with half the facts about this word could conclude that anyone who uses it today is just wrong — or at least that they’re wrong to use it to mean anything besides “to kill one in 10.”

But language doesn’t work that way, and anyone who says it does has no right to use the word “girl,” “awful,” “tell” or any of a thousands of other words as they’re used today. At different times in the past, a girl was a child of either sex, something awful was awesome, and you couldn’t tell a story because to tell meant to count.

Words come from appropriations — misuses, if you will — of other words. When enough of us use a word a certain way, we’re collectively voting to give that word a new job, which I think is pretty cool, and not in the low-temperature sense.

So it shouldn’t surprise you that “decimate” is no longer limited to the task the Romans gave it.

Here’s what we find under the “Webster’s New World College Dictionary” listing for decimate: “1. obsolete: to select by lot and kill every 10th one of. 2. to destroy or kill a large part of: ‘famine decimated the population.’”

So you’re doing fine in Webster’s view if you use either definition.

Of course, any time you use a word others object to, you risk offending the persnickety and the ill-informed. It may not be worth it.

“Whether you stick to the original one-in-10 meaning or use the extended sense, the word is infected with ambiguity. And some of your readers will probably be puzzled or bothered,” writes “Garner’s Modern American Usage.”

On the other hand, chances are that the use that comes most naturally to you is natural to your listener or reader, too. “Although a few commentators still cling to the Latin,” writes “Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage,” “most recent usage books recognize that the Latin etymology does not rule the English world.”

Avoid using “decimate” in front of another percentage: “The famine decimated 40% of the population.” But, other than that, the experts agree, you can use it without worry.

JUNE CASAGRANDE is author of “It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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