Saturday, 25 June 2016


In The Sound of Drums, the Master says:
Shall we decimate them? That sounds good. Nice word, decimate. Remove one tenth of the population!
Clever right? Chalk one up for the peeververein! He used decimate in its correct meaning!

Except decimate has hardly ever been used to mean “destroy one tenth of”.

I know it's in some dictionaries with this meaning. And you can find many usage writers who claim it. But where's the evidence?

The notion that it means “destroy one tenth of” seems to have started with James Murray. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage suggests that Murray added this definition because he wanted to make a semantic link between the word’s etymology and its use in English:
Sir James Murray inserted a definition in the OED, "To kill, destory, or remove one in every ten of" before the extended sense just discussed ["destroy a large part of"]. He presumably did this to provide a semantic bridge from the earlier senses (and especially the Roman sense) to the extended sense, but he produced no citations to indicate its actual use. Apparently decimate has never been so used in English.
OED editor at large Jesse Sheidlower agrees:
The only sense that's ever been common in English is the figurative 'to destroy a great number, proportion, or part of', first found in the mid seventeenth century. Despite repeated claims that this sense is erroneous, on the grounds that decimate should only refer to a destruction of one-tenth, that is how the word is used. In fact, it seems to be the only way the word is used; despite the insistence of various usage critics, a real example of decimate meaning 'to destroy one-tenth of' has never to my knowledge been found in actual running text.
Ammon Shea seems to agree.

On the other hand, when I looked in the OED Online recently, I saw that the entry has been changed. It now says
1b. To kill, destroy, or remove one in every ten of. In later use usually with an indication that the more general sense 1c is not intended, esp. by use of literally.
In the 7 citations that follow, I see 3 which clearly mean "remove one in every ten of":
1846 Addr. of Trustees (Burlington Coll.) (ed. 2) 51 Suppose that one in ten be found, after fair trial, and long patience, quite impracticable... There will still be seventy-two. And these, if needful, may again be decimated.

1921 Youth's Compan. 5 May 279 There are at least 3,000,000 fewer French people than there were in 1911, and the loss may prove to be almost 4,000,000. That would mean that France has been literally decimated.

1998 P. Gourevitch We wish to inform You 3 Decimation means the killing of every tenth person in a population, and in the spring and early summer of 1994 a program of massacres decimated the Republic of Rwanda.
This change was part of OED3. So at least 3 uses in the past 400 years have been found and added to the OED. But these citations were not there when the “remove one in every ten of” definition was originally written. And if you have to add “literally” after the word, that's a sign that it's not the usual meaning.