Don't decimate me, bro!
June 16, 2011 7:54 AM Subscribe
What could have happened in 1663 specifically to change the meaning of "decimate?"
posted by Naberius to Writing & Language (9 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
The NSA Signals Intelligence Style Guide (awesome, I know!) includes an entry for "decimate" meant to discourage its sloppy yet widespread usage as simply a more emphatic version of "destroy." It begins by noting the original meaning as a Roman military punishment applied to entire units (generally for mutiny or cowardice) that consisted of killing every 10th man. (Hence the "decem" root.)
It then adds, "Although usage since 1663 has expanded its meaning to 'the destruction in any way of a large proportion of anything reckoned by number,' it is not a synonym for 'destroy' or 'smash'."
Okay, but why this very specific reference to 1663? What happened then that would make it some kind of turning point in the definition of the word? The Ottoman Turks and the Hapsburgs were at war in Austria in 1663, but I haven't found any big decimations associated with it - beyond the general mayhem of battle at least, but that's numerically indiscriminate and hardly specific to a particular year. Nor have I spotted any big dictionaries or other watershed events in English usage. So why 1663?
(This is completely irrelevant to my needs as an editor, by the way, and yet it tasks me, and I'm wasting time trying to track it down instead of actually editing things. Bad user interface, NSA.)