Sunday, June 30, 2013

Misused words: "Decimated"

"Decimated" does not mean "mostly destroyed" or "devastated".

To decimate is to destroy one-tenth of something.

In the Roman army, one in ten of soldiers who retreated would be executed. The unlucky candidates for execution would be chosen by lot, so that all those who retreated would know there was a chance of their being selected. This was intended to discourage retreating while not destroying too many soldiers. The same method has also been used by later armies, notably the Red Army during the Russian Civil War.

This practice is called "decimation".

To say "our manufacturing industry has been decimated" when you mean "our manufacturing industry has been mostly destroyed" is therefore to make a gross understatement. 

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