What “decimate” means

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and other natural disasters, writers and broadcasters used the word “decimated” to describe the destruction. Careful writers know, however, that the word “decimate” comes from the Roman army’s practice of killing every 10th soldier in a mutinous legion. See this definition from the American Heritage Dictionary. Professor Paul Brians asserts that “decimate” can mean “drastically reduce in numbers,” but he finds the use of the word to refer to widespread destruction a stretch. Evan Jenkins’ Language Corner points out an even looser use of “decimate” to refer to a single person.

For another view of the word “decimate,” check out The Mavens’ Word of the Day.

Even if “decimate” has come to mean “destroy,” writers and broadcasters should be prepared for the criticism of readers who know the origin of the word. We have some fine synonyms for “destroy”: annihilate, wipe out, demolish, ruin, smash, wreck, pulverize, lay to waste, dismantle.

Also, writers and broadcasters should remember that “totally destroyed” is a redundancy. If a building is destroyed, it’s gone — totally.

Keywords: grammar guide, language, writing

This article was originally posted by the Raleigh News & Observer, a subsidiary of The McClatchy Co.; is posted here to provide continuity; and is copyright © 2011 The News & Observer Publishing Company, which reserves the right to remove this post.