The decimate debate

wolf2Grammar and usage purists like to argue about what is correct and what isn’t. But unlike simple computational math, English embraces shades of gray between black and white. Accepted usage constantly changes, as do the sources cited as final authority.

That’s why we can program a calculator to find a multiply-by-zero error buried in a complicated proof, but we can’t agree on the rules for an infallible grammar checker.

The original meanings of many Latin-based words, for example, have evolved over time. Hundreds of years ago, the word decimate referred to the killing of one-tenth (from the Latin, deca-) of a Roman legion as punishment for disloyalty or cowardice. Now the word is used to mean, in a general sense, kill, destroy, or eliminate a large portion.

A reporter announces that a tornado has decimated a small town, and critics come out of the woodwork to snipe, “Oh really? Exactly one-tenth of the houses were destroyed?” They often suggest devastated as a better word choice. Although both words can be used to describe property damage, devastate can also connote overwhelming shock or grief: “The residents of the small town were devastated by their loss.”

Unless your audience includes Grammar Police types, you’re probably safe with either decimate or devastate in reference to significant destruction. You could even say, “A nasty flu epidemic decimated (or devastated) our team just before the championship game.” But beware of a third word that sounds similar to, but is not interchangeable with, the first two: desecrate (to violate or disrespect a sacred place or thing).

I once read an article that described a storm as desecrating a town. Unless the storm sprayed racist graffiti on a holy shrine, I’m guessing the writer meant decimate.

Just remember the story of The Three Little Pigs. The big, bad wolf did not decimate, devastate, or desecrate any of the pigs’ houses. So if your dwelling falls victim to a violent wind, you might just want to say:

It huffed and it puffed and it blew my house down.

 Like TextCPR on Facebook!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *