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Annoying Misuses of Words

It is possible that I’m the only one who feels this way, but there are a number of words that annoy me. It isn’t the word that really bothers me, it is the fact that people so often use the word incorrectly and nobody even seems to notice. The misuse is so common that it even appears in newspapers and magazines, which means that even the editors missed it.

A single example is the word “decimate” and its various forms. This word is so often misused that it is rare to even see it used correctly.

A recent newspaper article shows how the word is misused. The article was about the huge wildfires that have destroyed so much of Southern California. The article keyed on how fires “have decimated so much of the forest and buildings.” I don’t think they realized that they were actually saying that the destruction wasn’t too bad.

“Decimate” comes from a practice the Romans used. If a military unit was guilty of a major crime, all the men in the unit were gathered together and lots were drawn to select 10% of the men in the unit. The selected men were then executed. The word, ‘decimate’, actually means “to reduce or destroy one-tenth”. The prefix, “deci-” means one-tenth. A decimeter in the metric system is equal to a tenth of a meter.

From the coverage of the fires in southern California, it looks like far more than 10% of the forests, scrub, and buildings are being destroyed, especially in some areas, so these aren’t being decimated. Using ‘decimate’ in this context, meaning wide-spread destruction, would be similar to using ‘decimeter’ to mean “hundreds of kilometers”. It definitely isn’t what the word means and intentional misuse doesn’t change the actual meaning.

Saying that something was decimated when it was actually largely destroyed is actually downplaying the severity of the disaster.

  • Did you realize that decimate referred to only one-tenth?

    • Yes
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Written by Rex Trulove

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