1. to destroy or kill a large part of (a group) 2. (a). to inflict great destruction or damage on (b). to reduce markedly in amount 3. to select by lot and kill one in every ten of

This word has an interesting “Usage Note” in the American Heritage Dictionary. The dictionary’s editors put together a usage panel consisting of linguists and lexicographers and asked them what they thought on various usage issues. Here is what they said about decimate:
Decimate originally referred to the killing of every tenth person, a punishment used in the Roman army for mutinous legions. Today this meaning is commonly extended to include the killing of any large proportion of a group. Sixty-six percent of the Usage Panel accepts this extension in the sentence The Jewish population of Germany was decimated by the war, even though it is common knowledge that the number of Jews killed was much greater than a tenth of the original population. However, when the meaning is further extended to include large-scale destruction other than killing, as in The supply of fresh produce was decimated by the nuclear accident at Chernobyl, only 26 percent of the Panel accepts the usage.

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2 Responses to decimate

  1. Dad says:

    This word is also commonly used in referring to a specific person, too, isn’t it? Like “She was decimated by losing her job, with two kids to feed.”

  2. Karl says:

    You could be right, but I’ve never heard it used in that sense — at least, not that I can recall.

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