Peeve of the Day

Because it’s the grey tag-end of October, moving into the dreariest part of the year up here in the north country, when the fall colors are all gone but the winter snow-that-sticks hasn’t yet fallen, and this time of year always makes me feel peevish:

Listen to me, O People. Do not use “decimated” to mean “destroyed.” This is not what it means.

“Decimate” in its most literal sense means “to reduce by one-tenth.” It refers to the punishment used in the Roman legions when an entire unit had committed an egregious offense, such as mutiny or desertion. Rather than executing all of them, the offenders would be condemned to draw lots to choose one man out of every ten.  Those so chosen would then be clubbed and/or stoned to death by their unchosen comrades. Modern usage often implies a much higher proportion of casualties than one-tenth, possibly because of the frightfulness of the practice (even the ancient Romans, who were no wusses when it came to cruel and unusual punishment, didn’t employ it very often.)

Nevertheless, it still doesn’t mean complete destruction.  Nor does it refer to the destruction of a physical object; you don’t say, for example, The Possum  Beach town hall was decimated by Hurricane Humperdinck. Usually, “decimated” refers to a loss of population, or at least, by extension, a loss of countable things:  The massive live oaks that lined the streets of Possum Beach were decimated by Hurricane Humperdinck.   Whether the latter sentence means that literally one oak tree in every ten got blown down, or just that a whole lot of them were, depends upon how punctilious (or nitpicking, take your choice) the writer is about such things.

If what you’re trying to say is that beautiful and historic Possum Beach got blown all to pieces and is going to have a hard time picking itself back up, what you say is, Possum Beach was devastated – which is to say, laid waste – by Hurricane Humperdinck.

Got it?  Good.

One thought on “Peeve of the Day

  1. Reblogged this on Madhouse Manor and commented:
    Rather than the Latinate “devastated,” I’d use the good old-fashioned English and say “forwasted.”

    “For,” of course, is an intensifier, meaning “entirely” or “completely” (often negatively). You don’t see it much these days outside of “forlorn” (entirely lost), “forsaken” (completely not for the purpose of), and “forbid” (absolutely commanded against).

    I’d far rather hear someone say “forbrent” (a good English word) than “incinerated” (used by those Roman guys).

    Another great intensifier (not seen much these days outside of nautical use) is “dead.” As in “dead ahead” and “dead slow.” In the 19th c. the street gang the Dead Rabbits were calling themselves the Absolute Fighters (rabbit as in “rabbit punch,” not as in bunny).

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