Definitions

from The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, 4th Edition

  • transitive v. To destroy or kill a large part of (a group).
  • transitive v. Usage Problem To inflict great destruction or damage on: The fawns decimated my rose bushes.
  • transitive v. Usage Problem To reduce markedly in amount: a profligate heir who decimated his trust fund.
  • transitive v. To select by lot and kill one in every ten of.

from Wiktionary, Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike License

  • v. To kill one man chosen by lot out of every ten in a legion or other military group.
  • v. To reduce anything by one in ten, or ten percent.
  • v. To exact a tithe, or tax of 10 percent.
  • v. To reduce to one-tenth.
  • v. To severely reduce; to destroy almost completely.
  • v. To replace a high-resolution model with one of lower resolution but acceptably similar appearance.

from the GNU version of the Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • transitive v. To take the tenth part of; to tithe.
  • transitive v. To select by lot and punish with death every tenth man of.
  • transitive v. To destroy a considerable part of

from The Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia

  • To take the tenth part of or from; tithe.
  • To select by lot and put to death every tenth man of: as, to decimate a captured army or a body of prisoners or mutineers (a barbarity occasionally practised in antiquity).
  • Loosely, to destroy a great but indefinite number or proportion of: as, the inhabitants were decimated by fever; the troops were decimated by the enemy's fire.

from WordNet 3.0 Copyright 2006 by Princeton University. All rights reserved.

  • v. kill in large numbers
  • v. kill one in every ten, as of mutineers in Roman armies

Etymologies

Latin decimāre, decimāt-, to punish every tenth person, from decimus, tenth, from decem, ten; see dekm̥ in Indo-European roots.
(American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition)
From Latin decimare "to take the tenth (decimus) part of anything", in particular referring to the levying and payment of tithe and also the practice of capital punishment applied to one man at random (by lot) out of every ten in a legion; compare quintate. (Wiktionary)

Examples

  • I always flinch when I hear someone use the word decimate to mean "wipe out," as in, "The Sioux deci­mated Custer's men."

    Prayers To Broken Stones

  • The word decimate does not begin to do justice to the tragedy that has befallen the Polish nation.

    The Guardian World News

  • She said it would "decimate" the agriculture sector, where illegal workers fill 75% of the jobs.

    Feds Target Illegal Hires

  • After promising not to "decimate" education and programs for the most vulnerable, Brewer made the largest cut to education in state history.

    Luis Heredia: Brewer Going Rogue in Arizona? You Betcha

  • The idea was based on the punishment meted out to "failing" legions in by Rome, and from which the word 'decimate', comes

    Archive 2008-01-06

  • I nominate 'decimate' as it applies to Man's and Nature's destructive fury and the outcome of sporting contests.

    Archive 2008-01-01

  • One day "hard drive" may indeed by an appropriate term for a PC base unit, due to mass perception of the meaning see "decimate" for a contemporary example, but not just yet.

    What to Call a Griefer?

  • (Thank Christ for that, one hears oneself murmuring, even though Amis would have reproved the incorrect use of the word "decimate" by anyone else.)

    The Man of Feeling

  • I hate it when people use the word "decimate" like that.

    Original Signal - Transmitting Digg

  • She said trimming another $1 million from the School Department budget would "decimate" the city's public school system, increasing classroom average sizes from about 20 to 22 students to approximately 30 to 35.

    Reader - MassLive.com

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Comments

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  • Yeah, Dicky Knee's got my back!

    April 20, 2010

  • I'm with bilby. There's etymology, and then there's metaphor, poetic license, and sanctification through usage. And the OED, which you name drop but must not have referenced, lists "to destroy or remove a large proportion of" as a valid rhetorical use. As does the venerable Century.

    If you were the guy with the short straw, it was probably a major catastrophe.

    April 20, 2010

  • Decimation was a Roman military punishment for units which did not fight hard enough or ran away.
    Men were grouped in tens to draw straws, the man with the shortest was then clubbed to death by the other nine.
    Decimation is widely used incorrectly, when devastation would be the correct way of describing a major catastrophe.
    Has no-one heard of the Oxford English Dictionary ?

    April 20, 2010

  • Roget’s II: The New Thesaurus, Third Edition. 1995.
    decimate
    VERB: To kill savagely and indiscriminately: annihilate, butcher, massacre, slaughter.
    ---------------------------------------------------------------
    I'm not sure about complete turnaround. The 'savage and indiscriminate' sense is very definitely related to the archaic meaning of decimate. I don't get why linguistic evolution offends people. To me it's part of the magic of language that there is a continual shifting and rebalancing of what we mean.

    If someone has ten apple trees and cuts one down, then says to me 'I have decimated my orchard', I can see why it's (etymologically) accurate and even funny in an ironic way. But in terms of current usage it's awkward and misleading. Personally I don't believe miscommunication is the point of language.

    April 1, 2008

  • Hmm, the original meaning you give for dilapidate (taking apart of stones) is nonetheless close in spirit to the idea of decay and ruin, although it's true that the activity involved has shifted from deliberate action to mere neglect.

    Whereas the shift in meaning for decimate represents a complete turnaround, from the killing of 10 per cent to the killing of "90 per cent". That's no doubt the reason why the shift bothers bilby's 5 per cent. (That would be pomegranate, me, and how many other people?)

    In my case, as a good former linguistics student, I accept and respect the shift in common usage. But what happens in practice is that I don't feel I can use the word at all. It's not even like nice where one can, on occasion, make a nice distinction just for fun.

    April 1, 2008

  • Actually pomegranate, linguistically speaking, common does tend to make it correct. A lot of words we use have different meanings now than when they were coined. We can't expect all words to keep the correct Latin meaning. delapidate, for example, doesn't mean what it does today, do you have a problem with that?

    December 5, 2007

  • Not accurate in terms of origins, but correct in terms of current usage. I don't have many conversations with Roman legions. Well, have to differ on this one.

    December 4, 2007

  • The 'kill in large numbers' meaning, for numbers over ten percent, is one of those cases in which dictionaries accept a second meaning because it becomes common usage. Common doesn't make it correct.

    December 4, 2007

  • Too many? Would 95% be too many? "Too late!" she cried as she waved her wooden leg. You would be hard pressed to find a reputable dictionary that does not recognise the 'kill in large numbers' meaning.

    December 4, 2007

  • Too many people use this word to mean "completely annihilate." In an American Civil War battle, if your side was only decimated, it probably won.

    December 4, 2007