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In this question, I learned that "to decimate" meant to reduce by 10% (hope I got that right).

And it is lamented that no-one uses it in this sense anymore.

Now, given that I never until today knew that it once had this meaning: was it ever even used this way in modern times? When was it last used in a mainstream publication in this sense?

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    That is correct; that's what the word originally meant. However, as dictionary.reference.com/browse/decimate indicates, modern usage is otherwise. You're right, it is unfortunate, because I can't think of another word that means the same as "decimate" used to mean...and we have plenty of other words for its current meaning (destroy, demolish, etc.) – Andy Feb 2 '11 at 17:51
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    I don't think it's unfortunate, personally. I just summarized the question I referenced. – Jürgen A. Erhard Feb 2 '11 at 18:05
  • @Andy: " To tithe " has the same end result, if not the same meaning. – oosterwal Feb 2 '11 at 21:22
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    This Magic: The Gathering card. (To explain for those who’ve never played the game: players typically start with 20 life points, can survive up to 10 poison counters, and have 60 cards in their library.) But as this article explains, it was named with the current usage debate somewhat consciously in mind, so is perhaps a borderline case. – PLL Feb 2 '11 at 21:26
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    I guess that the extended sense probably derived from the fact that although decimation left you with 90% of your men, it had a devastating effect on morale. Perhaps the strong awful feeling associated with the effect on morale is what people had in mind when they applied it to other situations. – nohat Feb 3 '11 at 1:38
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Actually, the "reduce by 10%" meaning is not the classical sense, and is in fact a modern invention! So if at all decimate has been used in this sense, it's only in the modern period, not in any classical period. As the Merriam-Webster's dictionary of English Usage explains, decimate has had three main uses in English:

  1. A specific Roman military practice of punishment (an army punishing its own soldiers), and only in this specific context (not a general-purpose "reduce by 10%"). The practice was that if a unit had exhibited cowardice or insubordination, one-tenth of the unit would be chosen at random, and clubbed to death by the other nine-tenths. You can read a five-page description of decimation in this book. Anyway, this sense carries over from Latin, and is attested in English since at least 1600.

  2. A ten percent tax (esp. the one levied by Cromwell on the Royalists). This short-lived usage, attested since 1659, seems to have gone out of use (though the word tithe has taken some of its function).

  3. The "modern" sense: emphatically destroy, devastate, severely reduce (not by just 10%) the numbers of, etc. This is in fact attested since 1663.

Now, it seems that Sir James Murray, primary editor of the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, inserted a definition of decimate as "to kill, destroy, or remove one in every ten of" (the "reduce by 10%" meaning) between sense 1 and sense 3, to have a "semantic bridge" between them. This definition was given without citations (unusual for the OED) — perhaps decimate had never been used in this sense in English till then.

And it hasn't been much used in that sense since, either.

[The only exception is in engineering, where "decimation" means reducing the number of samples (resulting in a lower 'resolution'), with no implication about the extent of the reduction: so you see phrases like "decimate by a factor of 4". In such a context, "decimate by a factor of 10/9" would effectively mean "reduce by 10%".]

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  • +1. Indeed. The Spanish language retains the word diezmo (cognate of diez, ten), meaning a 10% tax or levy. The Spanish word for decimate is diezmar. – CesarGon Feb 27 '11 at 20:42
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    Decimation is what happened when Britain switched from the £sd currency system to a strictly decimal one. Well, that or vice versa. :) – tchrist Jul 12 '14 at 22:29
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I couldn't find the comic I was looking for, but I did come across these:

decimate 1
Found here

decimate 2
Found here

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  • Haha! Nice! (and I'm not a fan of the minimum posting length) – Nishant Feb 20 '11 at 23:10
  • Nice filler. (( – compman May 4 '11 at 19:29
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The moment I became a Doctor Who fan for life was when, in Series 3 Episode 12 "The Sound of Drums", we had this dialogue:

The Master: Shall we decimate them? That sounds good, nice word, decimate.
The Master [to the Toclafane]: Remove one tenth of the population!

(Assuming/hoping here that there is no difficulty with considering "screenwriting" to be a subset of "writing".)

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Most references in google books are either from dictionaries, or from bitter pedants who bewail its shift in meaning. Though I did find this one fiction book, where it's used without overtly drawing attention to itself.

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    Could you quote the sentence used in the book? Google Books turns off Preview for certain books in certain locations… – ShreevatsaR Feb 2 '11 at 21:06
  • @ShreevatsaR: I can’t access a preview either, but the Wikipedia summary explains it somewhat: the plot is set in motion by a literal decimation in a WWII prison. – PLL Feb 2 '11 at 21:17
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    I only see a snippet, and here it is: "Two notions for future films. One: a political situation like that in Spain. A decimation order. Ten men in prison draw lots with matches. A rich man draws the longest match." – so-user Feb 3 '11 at 1:38
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In order to answer this question, one needs, first, to be clear what this ‘classic’ sense of decimate is. It is not simply ‘reduce by 10%’. Reducing something by 10% is sometimes an improvement, and even when it is damaging, it often constitutes a minor, trivial, easily repairable damage to the thing in question. Nobody, however, uses decimate for actions whose effects are beneficial or trivially damaging to whatever we are talking about; it is always used for actions that are devastating to it. The ‘classic’ meaning, that some linguistic conservatives insist on, involves a comparison with the Roman punishment of decimating, which was far from being something trivial; it was a severe, drastic punishment. Now, it was essential to the Roman practice of decimating that it was a severe punishment of the whole of the military unit, by killing one tenth of its members; the expectation was that the surviving 90% would be profoundly affected by the punishment. The conservatives (traditionalists, purists) argue that the word should be reserved for the actions that are sufficiently analogous to this punishment, in that they profoundly affect the whole of something, by destroying only a part of it, where the part needn’t be exactly 10%, but should be substantially less than the whole.

Is the word decimate ever used in that sense in contemporary English? There certainly are situations that fit this sense of the word. Consider an earthquake that destroys approximately 10% of the buildings in a particular city. Chances are that such a tragedy would have devastating effects on the city as a whole, even though the remaining 90% of its buildings are left standing. The linguistic conservatives would say that in such a case it is perfectly correct to say that the city has been decimated by the earthquake.

However, when we hear somebody say ‘The city has been decimated by the earthquake’ it is usually impossible to know whether the person’s choice of the word decimate was guided by these considerations (which would mean that the word is used in the ‘classic’ sense), or merely by the fact that the effects of the earthquake were devastating (which would mean that it is used in the currently widespread, non-‘classic’ sense). The answer to the question is thus that the word is quite likely sometimes used in the ‘classic’ sense, but that it is, because of the considerable overlap between the two senses, difficult to be sure that it is so used in a particular case.

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