Evan’s Cranky Writing Corner: How Not to Use “Decimate”
Stop using the word “decimate” right now. Every time I hear it it decimates my heart. That is, it reduces my heart’s size by a tenth, because that is what the word decimate should mean.
I use “should” because modern dictionaries have succumbed to societal pressure and now the word “decimate,” according to Webster’s, means
“To reduce drastically especially in number.”
Note that this is definition 3a, where definition 1 is as follows:
“To select by lot and kill every tenth man of.”
(Yes, the “true” definition of “decimate” is a little bit of a downer.)
These days, most of the time, people use “decimate” when they mean “destroy” or “damage” or “almost completely destroy,” etc.
This is unacceptable.
Yes, I realize language evolves and definitions of words change. But sometimes those changes are counter to logic and undermine the reason we have words in the first place.
Take “literally.” As most of you probably realize by now, people misuse “literally” literally all the time. The overwhelming inarticulateness of the average American has again forced Webster’s to kowtow and add to the definition of “literally” a second, stupid definition as follows:
“In effect: Virtually”
This is not okay. We can’t start calling fire “water.”
“But Evan, you’re just being a curmudgeon. We should call fire ‘water’ and use ‘literally’ to mean ‘figuratively.’ It’s just change and you’re afraid of it for only that reason. Embrace the future, man! Feel the Bern!”
Shut your mouth. Shut your mouth and get the hell out of my house.
Here’s the thing: there are only so many words that begin with “deci-.” There are so few of them, in fact, that I have listed all of them out below. The problem is that words beginning with deci- are restricted to but five etymologies.
1. From Latin decimus (“tenth”)
2. From Latin decidere (de- “off” + cedere “to cut”)
3. From Latin deciduous (de- “down” + cadere “to fall”)
4. From Middle English (de + siphre)
5. From French (de + civilizer)
That’s it. If you aren’t using a form of “decide,” “deciduous,” “decipher,” or “decivilize,” then the “deci” in your word comes from the Latin root meaning one-tenth. It’s baked right in there as a prefix. In English, we always preserve prefixes. I defy you to find me another word where a prefix’s meaning has been nullified.
And this isn’t an evolution of the language. An evolution would be more like making decimate to mean “destroy a portion of.” I’d be okay with that. But to mean “completely destroy” is the opposite of what the word has always meant.
So, please stop using this new form of decimate, because you’re decimating English, the world’s literacy, classical history, and worst of all, my patience.
Like I promised, here’s all the deci- words!
From Latin decimus “tenth”
From Latin decidere: de- “off” + cedere “to cut”
From Latin deciduus, falling: de- “down” + cadere “to fall.”
*From de + cipher
^From the french “civiliser.”