Sunday, March 23, 2014

MBWS: Decimate

Okay, so decimate isn't the biggest word, or the most complicated, but there are just too many people using it wrong, and that bothers me, probably more than it should. Clocking in at just eight letters, it's probably not going to be the shortest word you see in this series, but it's probably the one most used incorrectly.

Plenty of folks use decimate as if it was synonymous with devastate. It's not.

The screen came up to light again, showing a devastated section of the city grid. No, not decimated. Had that part of the city been decimated, one out of every ten buildings would be destroyed.
 - from "Ghost Story" by Jim Butcher

I think that should pretty well clear it up; there's not much reason to go any further, but this is a pretty short post thus far, so I'll continue.

Shall we decimate them? That sounds good. Remove one tenth of the population.
 - The Master, from "The Sound of Drums," Season 3, Episode 12 of Doctor Who

Are you seeing the pattern? Even if you are, I think I'll go one more, just to reflect the pattern of the previous post.

We must be careful not to decimate the entire team.
 - Ottmar Hitzfeld

Okay, so that last one was a bad example. Including both "decimate" and "entire" on the same noun is wrong. Don't do that. "Decimate the team" is sufficient, unless you're planning on taking out a tenth of every single member, in flesh and blood and bone. That's unnecessarily gruesome. Again, don't do that.

So, if you've been paying attention, there's a lot of tens going around. That's the key here. "Dec" is the part of the word that essentially means "ten" (at least as far as we're concerned). A decagon has ten sides, a decade has ten years, December is the tenth month... sorry, another bad example; December used to be the tenth month, but that's another story for another time.

Here's the deal: If you're going to cut somebody down by a tenth their size, you'll decimate them; any more than that and you'll be doing some serious damage; any less and you'll just be making them angry. Don't make them angry, especially if they're a grammar or semantics nazi.


Thank you for joining me in this edition of MBWS. If you'd like to suggest any words, feel free to comment below. If you'd like to view all other posts in this series, you can do so here.