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?"

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.)
posted by Naberius to Writing & Language (9 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
 
From what I can tell in a few minutes of googling, 1663 just happens to be the earliest usage the OED could find of that meaning.

I couldn't find the specific example, though.
posted by empath at 7:58 AM on June 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


Ah here is the cite:
1663 J. SPENCER Prodigies (1665) 385 The..Lord..sometimes decimates a multitude of offenders, and discovers in the personal sufferings of a few what all deserve.
posted by empath at 8:00 AM on June 16, 2011


It's probably not any watershed event, but rather the earliest found usage in its current meaning. That's pretty typically what dates mean in etymologies.

On preview, empath beat me to it.
posted by solotoro at 8:01 AM on June 16, 2011


Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage says:
All of these critics have learned the etymology of decimate, but none of them have bothered to examine its history and use in English. ... decimate has seldom meant "to destroy every tenth man" in English, and then only in historical references.

Aside from a few technical uses, decimate has had three main applications in English. The first, attested since 1600, refers to the Roman disciplinary procedure.... The second application, attested from 1659, refers to a ten percent tax ... but it has no current use.

The third, first attested in 1663, ... is the only sense of the word that has continued to thrive in English.... Although a few commentators still cling to the Latin ... most recent usage books recognize that the Latin etymology does not rule the English word.
In short, don't trust the NSA Signals Intelligence Style Guide.
posted by languagehat at 8:44 AM on June 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


Ah, thank you. So the protip for these kind of queries is: Stick "OED" on the end. Googling "decimate 1663" alone was really not all that helpful.

For clarification, my path to an editorial career came via journalism and screenwriting rather than a scholarly background, so the citations and etymologies and so on are not my strong point. And really not what my company needs. The finer points of the etymology of decimate would be completely lost on the government agencies we deal with. In fact the solicitations we're responding to would generally leave a high school English teacher with persistent PTSD issues.

My contribution is best summed up in the standard speech I give every time in my mind at least once on every project, and would love to be able to actually deliver just once:

Ladies and Gentlemen, the government requested a 20 page document and you have, once again, given us 35. We now have two choices. We can submit this as you've written it, at which point they will simply throw away everything after page 20 unread and consider the first 20 pages as the whole of our response. They will note that many of the topics they asked us to discuss aren't addressed at all, and they will place our submission in their hall of shame.

Or I can try to figure out what you're actually trying to say with this and what is irrelevant filler that just happened to be woven into whatever old document you picked this up from, and rewrite it to address the topic within the page limits we've been given. I await your decision as to how to proceed.
posted by Naberius at 8:50 AM on June 16, 2011 [3 favorites]


In short, don't trust the NSA Signals Intelligence Style Guide.

No, it's right, it doesn't say you should use the Latin meaning, just that it's not a synonym for destroy. It says 'the destruction in any way of a large proportion of anything reckoned by number,' so you can't decimate a sandwich, but you can decimate a bag of carrots.

Must be lunch time.
posted by Morydd at 8:55 AM on June 16, 2011 [9 favorites]


Huh, it took a few extra clicks for me to locate the actual NSA SIGINT style guide in question. Lots of interesting gems in there.
posted by QuantumMeruit at 9:15 AM on June 16, 2011


No, it's right, it doesn't say you should use the Latin meaning, just that it's not a synonym for destroy. It says 'the destruction in any way of a large proportion of anything reckoned by number,' so you can't decimate a sandwich, but you can decimate a bag of carrots.

You're right, and I was too quick to snark. I withdraw that remark and will be announcing my resignation from Congress as soon as I can talk to my wife.
posted by languagehat at 10:31 AM on June 16, 2011


Wikipedia:
The Italian General Luigi Cadorna applied decimation to under-performing units during the First World War. In his book Stalingrad, Antony Beevor recounts how, during the Second World War, a Soviet Corps commander of a division practised decimation on retreating soldiers by walking down the line of soldiers at attention, and shooting every tenth soldier in the face until his TT-33 pistol ran out of ammunition.
posted by kirkaracha at 1:06 PM on June 16, 2011


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