Does ‘decimate’ really mean ‘destroy one tenth’?
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.
The complaint about the word typically centers on the fact that decimate is used improperly to refer to ‘destroying a large portion of something’, when the ‘true’ meaning of the word is ‘to put to death (or punish) one of every ten’.
There are several problems with this complaint. The first, and most obvious, is that language has an ineluctable desire to change, and there are almost no words in English which have been around for more than a few hundred years without taking on new meanings, changing their old ones, or coming to simultaneously mean one thing and the opposite (a type of word known as a contronym).
Which came first? The tithe or the punishment?
But the claim that decimate should be used to mean naught but to ‘put to death (or destroy) one of every ten’ has deeper problems than that. For it is not at all clear that this punitive sense is indeed the earliest definition of the word. The earliest Oxford English Dictionary citation of decimate in a punishing sense dates from 1600, in a work by John Dymmok, titled A Treatise of Ireland. Currently, decimate meaning ‘to tithe’ makes its first appearance in 1656 (more of which below). But the OED entry for decimate has not yet been revised and in the course of writing this article, I discovered an example of this meaning in a work of 1606 by Henoch Clapham called A Manual of the Bibles Doctrine. With just six years separating these citations at a time in history when far fewer writings remain, we cannot say with any certainty which meaning came first.
Going back even further
Decimation appears to be a slightly older word in English than the verb as it began to make an appearance in English writing in the early 16th century, some seventy years prior to decimate. Again, recent research can provide an earlier example than the current unrevised OED entry. It appears in a book by William Barlow, printed in 1528, where he writes ‘To forge excommunicacions For tythes and decimacions Is their continuall exercyse.’
If we look to the dictionaries of this time period the evidence suggests that this tithing sense of decimate was just as common, if not more so, as the sense of killing or punishing one of every ten. The first English dictionary to record the word was Thomas Blount’s magnificently titled Glossographia, published in 1656, which defines decimate as “to take the tenth, to gather the Tyth”, with no mention made of killing anyone, soldiers or otherwise. In Elisha Coles’ An English Dictionary, published some twenty years later, it is defined as both ‘to tythe or take the tent’ and ‘also punishing every tenth man’. These are the only two dictionaries of the 17th century to define decimate (which is not terribly surprising, as there were very few such reference works at the time).
Think before you decimate
So given that these two meanings of decimate appeared almost simultaneously, why are we so obsessed with assigning the punitive meaning to the word? A likely answer is that people are falling prey to what is known as the Etymological Fallacy, a tendency to believe that a word’s current meaning should be dictated by its roots. Unfortunately for the etymological purists, decimate comes from the Medieval Latin word decimatus, which means ‘to tithe’. The word was then assigned retrospectively to the Roman practice of punishing every tenth soldier.
So, next time you attend a symposium (etymologically, drinking partner) with someone sinister (etymologically, left-handed), and they launch into a tirade about the misuse of this word, you’ll be able to decimate their argument in no time at all.