Word of the week

Word of the week: decimate

I stand corrected. The Oxford Dictionaries website now defines decimate as a verb meaning to “kill, destroy, or remove a large proportion of”, as in “the inhabitants of the country had been decimated”, and also defines it as “drastically reduce the strength or effectiveness of (something)”, for example “public transport has been decimated”.

The way that I have understood the word since I first heard it in the early 1980s is now described as historical: to “kill one in every ten of (a group of people, originally a mutinous Roman legion) as a punishment for the whole group”.

I wrote about this at the start of the month, when speculating on the phrase “Routine Operations”, observing that words change meaning and citing “enormity” and “decimate” as words that are used because of how they sound rather than because of their original definitions. I noted then that I have never corrected anyone on an inaccurate use of enormity or decimate, and definitely won’t do it now. The link to the new definition on the Oxford Dictionaries website is here, and one of the comments at the bottom of the page, posted only last month, shows how strongly some people feel about it:

“the fact that it has been prostituted to supplant the true meaning of the word in order to dumb it down for those that are too lazy or just don’t know how to use a dictionary and/or can not spell the word ‘eradicate’, is an abhorrence and a sad commentary on our society as a whole.”

I don’t feel that strongly about it myself, but would prefer it if the old definition had stuck. I certainly won’t be using the word, in speech or print, for the foreseeable future (once this post has been published). Like many other things (such as the current debates about whether to remain in the EU or not) I’ll leave it to other people to express their views forcibly. This Oxford Dictionaries blog post from 2012 suggests that my “linguistic pet peeve” about the word decimate might be “rather irrational”:

“Most people have a linguistic pet peeve or two, a useful complaint about language that they can sound off about to show other people that they know how to wield the English language. Most of these peeves tend to be rather irrational, a quality which should in no way diminish the enjoyment of the complainer. A classic example of this is the word decimate.”

To prevent any risk of being thought irrational I will never comment on the word “decimate” again.


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