Make Your Editor Cry: Decimate vs. Devastate

Make Your Editor Cry: Decimate vs. Devastate

This is commonly misused and a serious personal pet peeve of mine.

The origin of the word decimate is, unsurprisingly, from the Latin decimatus, past participle of decimare meaning “the removal or destruction of one-tenth,” from decem meaning “ten.”

Strictly speaking, to decimate means to reduce one hundred percent by just ten percent so that ninety percent remains viable. It does not mean to reduce a hundred percent by ninety percent so that only ten percent remains viable. It absolutely does not mean the utter and complete destruction of a hundred percent so that zero percent, as in nothing viable, remains because that is devastation not decimation.

During the height of the Roman Empire’s expansion, if the advancing Roman army did not achieve their goal during the day’s battle, Tribunes could choose a disciplinary action which was to decimate the troops under their command. To accomplish this, one legionnaire out of every ten legionnaires—usually the legionnaire in that squad who had not comported himself well during the battle that day but sometimes just by simply drawing lots—was singled out and then publicly executed in front of the remaining troops. This tended to motivate the remaining living nine legionnaires to fight much harder the following day.

Therefore, if it is your intent to demonstrate that Jill’s rejection devastated Ian, then saying that Ian felt decimated by Jill’s rejection says that Ian is not completely and utterly destroyed emotionally, but rather that he was reduced by 10% and is still 90% just fine and dandy.

Likewise, saying that an area was totally decimated by an explosion implies neither complete destruction nor utter devastation. Detonating a hydrogen bomb in the Bikini Atoll did not decimate the Atoll. The Atoll was not reduced by just one-tenth. The Atoll was utterly destroyed, as in completely devastated. The ecology in the area was completely devastated for decades afterward. It was certainly not 90% still perfectly fine and good.

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