Monday, November 14, 2011

Decimate vs Devastate

1.      Kill, destroy, or remove a large percentage of.
2.      Drastically reduce the strength or effectiveness of (something): “plant viruses that can decimate yields.”

This is the definition that is displayed by Google when you look up “decimate.”

This definition is grievously wrong. (Grievous…as in flagrant, outrageous, atrocious.)

Another word that is commonly misused is “literally.” It's used in place of “figuratively.” For instance, Betty could not have “literally died” when her friend showed up wearing the same dress, because she’s standing here complaining about it. This is certainly an annoying gremlin in our language at present, but when I hear it, I tell myself that the person speaking slept through English class. It’s not worth my time being annoyed.

With “decimate,” I’m incapable of letting go. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because the word is not as commonly used on the whole. Or maybe I just like the way it sounds. Perhaps it's because I myself horribly abused it in my Star Wars fan-fiction novel back in the ‘90s, and I’m now atoning for my sins. Could be all three, I offer with a shrug, but none of that really matters. What does is that I when I hear the word “decimate” used in reference to crops destroyed by pests/disease, I feel like writing the name of the journalist’s on a forehead of a ragdoll and beating the stuffing out of it.

The fact that it has become acceptable to use the word “decimation” interchangeably with “devastation” is wholly offensive. Decimation is the polar opposite of the random, wide-scale destruction with which it has come to be associated.

During the Roman empire, there was a need for disciplinary action, from time to time.  For example, when your troops get schooled by a gladiator general by the name of Spartacus and his army of ex-slaves. To discourage a trend of such failures, General Marcus Licinius Crassus used decimation as both punishment and motivation. He would split his men into groups of ten and make them draw lots. The guy who lost the lottery would get beaten to death by the other nine. His men knew as they went into battle that should they lose, any man among them could draw the unlucky lot, rank notwithstanding. Their performance in battle greatly improved because they had reason to fear Crassus more than Spartacus.

Decimation is cold. It is literally calculated; it means “to reduce by tenths,” which does not equal a “large percentage” or a “drastic reduction.” It has just come to mean both by decades of misuse by people who should know better.

Take a look at these examples:
“...this very unhealthy financial environment that will cause the ‘decimation (1) of Western banks’...” — Center for Research on Globalization 
“The Asian citrus psyllid, which can carry a disease that has decimated Florida orange groves...” The Huffington Post 
“These ‘American Idol’ Losers Are Decimating The Winners In Real Life” — Business Insider

“...the entire eastern seaboard of the United States has been decimated by a terrorist attack...” — Kay Burley of SkyNews (who took some heat for this.)

“Australia decimate India in Tri-Nation hockey” — The Times of India (Oh...the verb agreement typo isn't mine. Update: I have been informed by a lovely commenter that this is correct in British English. My bad.)
Yes, English is a living language and the meanings of words change. “Cool” and “bad” have taken slang contexts. More recently “bling bling” was created to become a part of our dialect; these changes can be, even should be embraced. “Literally” and “decimate,” however, are being used wrongly. I personally believe that preserving their integrity is a noble cause.


  1. I literally died laughing when I read this post. ;) **OH come on, you know I had to.** I agree that it's a living language and has to change a little and all that. However I agree with you on this point because it's not a good change. Decimate is a very specific word, a word for which there is no true synonym (ok I've only had 3 hours of sleep and no spellcheck, I'm sure I spelled that wrong)ANYWAY by changing the meaning of a word which has no alternate word with the same meaning, instead of enriching our language we are decimating it. LOL, sorry I can't help myself. We end up losing vocabulary. It reminds me of CS Lewis' rant of the new use of "gentleman" to mean someone with good manners and kindness rather than the original meaning of someone who owns lands and has a coat of arms. The original meaning has been lost, there is nothing to replace it, and in order to speak about it historically one has to define it for the reader. I'm rambling... BUT changing the definition of a unique word (which has no true synonym) to be merely a synonym of an already existing word accomplishes nothin for our language. I'm really tired and don't think I'm making sense, so I'll go and just say I agree with you. ;)

  2. I honestly hadn't thought about the literal meaning of decimate before, and how it is not the meaning in common usage. I agree with you and with Coco's point: When a word has a very specific meaning, and that meaning is lost, it is a loss to the language.

    I can't agree with you about literally vs. figuratively, however. I think that *most* people (my friends, at least!) know the meaning of the word "literally" and they use it as a form of hyperbole. It's just a joke that's been sort of built in to the language :)

  3. Sarah...I LOVE hyperbole. I think it's a great thing when people are in on the joke. like Coco...she does it on purpose. I have seen it used, mostly by teenagers, who use it thoughtlessly out of habit. Which is fine too, except they grow up and never break the habit.

  4. A noble cause, indeed!

    On the other hand, could not decimation be used to convey a reduction in strength by a tenth, since that was the result of Crassus' tactic?

  5. Thanks Scott! It believe that it absolutely could be, so long as we're talking about people and not grain fields or buildings or something.

  6. This is the kind of thing I write about all the time on my blog ( It beats yelling at the TV or radio or firing off ill-considered letters to the editor.

    BTW, re: the Times of India quote (“Australia decimate India in Tri-Nation hockey” ), that isn't subject-verb disagreement. In British English, which is what Indians learn, collective nouns such as a team take a plural verb. We Americans do it differently.

  7. Lucy, thank you for the clarification. I'm pretty good at recognizing the differences, but I've never seen that before. Next time I'll know :)

  8. Is Crassus's name the source of the word "crass", the same way "Draco" gave us "draconian"? Hmm!

  9. Oooh! Good question. I'd bet that's true!