AFTER A TWO-YEAR holiday from complaints about the word decimate, I thought the debate might be over. At last, the defenders of the one true sense of decimate -- those who think the word should mean, as it did in ancient Rome, "to kill one in 10" -- had been routed, extirpated, quelled, vanquished, silenced.
But no -- they were only resting up for the next skirmish. The decimate dispute is back, most recently in the form of a take-no-prisoners declaration from reader Mort Brown of Holbrook: "To decimate means to reduce by 10 percent, as was done by the Roman legions."
So it does, when you're speaking of the Roman Army, or of others who copied their harsh punishment for mutinous legions. But as an English word, decimate has always had a wider scope. Since the mid-17th century, says the Oxford English Dictionary, the word has also been used to mean "destroy or remove a large proportion of."
Nobody objected, it seems, for more than two centuries; there was the military decimate and the loose, emphatic decimate, each in its proper place. But in 1870, according to Merriam-Webster's Concise Dictionary of English Usage, the popular American language commentator Richard Grant White declared war on the degraded decimate.
White inspired some followers, but the purists met resistance from the start. In an 1885 essay, writer Grant Allen rebuked the "superfine English" crowd, saying there was "surely nothing very wrong or out-of-the-way" in expanding the sense of decimate.
H.W. Fowler, that notable stickler, also condoned the nonclassical usage, writing in Modern English Usage (1926) that it was "natural" to use decimate loosely. Current dictionaries and usage guides agree; decimate no longer means "reduce by 10 percent" -- if it ever did -- except in historical references.
That doesn't mean anything goes, decimation-wise. Since the word implies partial destruction, most usage mavens don't like it as a synonym for "wipe out"; decimation is not devastation. Many, including Fowler, think it sounds odd when applied to single entities: A career or a car might be damaged, but not decimated. And using it with a percentage -- "They decimated 75 percent" -- is just weird.
If you pine for the classical decimate, though, you have a champion in language columnist William Safire. When he first addressed decimate, 25 years ago, he agreed with Fowler: "To limit the word's meaning to 'one-tenth' would be like limiting myriad to its literal '10,000.'" But a few years later, he quietly flip-flopped, warning readers that "unless purists persist, decimate will come to mean 'destroy a large part of.'" In 2004 he reaffirmed his faith: "Decimated means reduced by 10 percent."
But he was right the first time. If etymology governed usage, as he noted, we'd have to stop using myriad for "lots" -- and journal for anything not published daily, and honeymoon for wedding trips shorter than a month. That way lies lunacy.
Besides, we don't especially need a term that means "kill one in 10." As Barbara Wallraff notes in her book "Word Court," you're free to use decimate only in the narrow sense -- but "in that case, you won't be using the word very often."
... the piece goes on to discuss rather more salty subjects ...