Monday, March 15, 2010

Editorial Tip of the Week: You keep using [decimate]—I do not think it means what you think it means.

This week’s tip can be summed up in one sentence:

Although the word decimate has recently become accepted as meaning to cause great harm or damage, the word has a dark history, reaching back to the Roman practice of punishing a group of soldiers by having them kill every tenth man in their ranks by drawing lots to determine their fate.

But let us never pass an opportunity to learn. Let us blow the dust off a few ancient tomes as we delve deeper into definition of decimation.

The word decimate comes from the Latin decimatus, meaning “the removal of a tenth.” The first recorded use of this practice appears in Livy’s History of Rome. After being unsuccessful in war with the Volsci in 471 BC, Claudius decimates his troops for not following his orders:

The soldiers being at length collected from their scattered rout, the consul, after he had in vain followed his men for the purpose of rallying them, pitched his camp in a peaceful part of the country; and an assembly being convened, after inveighing not without good reason against the army, as traitors to military discipline, deserters of their posts, frequently asking them, one by one, where were their standards, where their arms; he first beat with rods and then beheaded those soldiers who had thrown down their arms, the standard-bearers who had lost their standards, and moreover the centurions, and those with the double allowance, who had left their ranks. With respect to the rest of the multitude, every tenth man was drawn by lot for punishment. [My emphasis]

While we have added definitions to the word, instances of this horrific practice of decimation can be found as recently as World War I and the Finnish Civil War. Douglas Harper traces the origins of the common definition to the 17th century, noting that decimates "has been used (incorrectly, to the irritation of pedants) since 1660s for destroy a large portion of."

Perhaps this week’s title was a bit hyperbolic, as inconceivable as that may seem. However, decimate has become a darling word of bloggers trying to ink an interesting headline, and it always helps to know the different definitions of a particular word. Remember our salmon style guide when you question the proper use of decimate. The Chicago Manual of Style states, "Avoid decimate (1) when you are referring to complete destruction or (2) when a percentage is specified." Annihilate will suffice as an alternative of the first type, while destroy generally fits the discussion of percentages lost.

Take the time to discover the history of the words you use. Wield your pen with precision.

1 comment:

  1. English grammar is not taught well, if at all. The use of some words is painful:

    Yes, close to not understanding what is being written...