Rantings of a sub-editor

February 15, 2010

Romance: decimated?

Filed under: decimate,word choice — substuff @ 10:50 am
Tags: ,

On Saturday night, I presented a handsome man with a Champagne truffle. Just one, you ask? Yes, just one. But it was a large one. So large, in fact, that anyone trying to bite into it would have looked (rather unromantically) a bit like a suckling pig. Being a gentleman, the recipient opted instead for a knife and a plate, intending to elegantly slice the truffle into small pieces that could be shared. However, upon the first application of the knife, the truffle shattered/crumbled/burst into a heap of (very tasty, thank you Montezuma’s) crumbs.

“you’ve decimated it!” I cried.

“Decimated it?” asked he, with a look of undisguised I’ve-got-her-now glee. “What do you think decimated means?”

It was then that I realised the truffle gift was nothing compared with what I had just done. This was the real gift!

I had thought that ‘to decimate’ meant to destroy, particularly when something is reduced to small pieces. However, knowing that he knew something I didn’t, I had a go. Decimate – decimal… I ventured that perhaps it meant to divide by 10.

Nearly. According to my truffling companion, the word comes from a Roman military practice. If a legion was lacking in discipline, the rulers would kill one in every 10 of the soldiers. This restored order, apparently.

But that’s not the end of the story. Reunited with my OED this morning, I discovered it wasn’t quite so simple.


  1. kill, destroy, or remove a large proportion of. Drastically reduce the strength or effectiveness of.
  2. (historical) kill one in every 10 of (a group of people) as a punishment for the whole group.


Historically, the meaning of the word decimate is ‘kill one in every ten of (a group of people)’. This sense has been more or less totally superseded by the later, more general sense ‘kill or destroy (a large proportion of)’, as in the virus has decimated the population. Some traditionalists argue that this and other later senses are incorrect, but it is clear that this is now part of standard English.

So I was wrong-ish, but not far off. I had meant to convey that he had shattered the truffle, rather than killed or totally destroyed it. And he was right, but labelled a ‘traditionalist’.

Ah, sweet romance.


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