Style Counsel

To decimate has since the seventeenth century meant to punish a group of people by killing or otherwise punishing every tenth person. This word stems from the Latin decimare (originally used in reference to mutinous Roman legions).

It has also been indiscriminately used to mean to destroy a significant number or proportion of (Macquarie), prompting argument between descriptive and prescriptive linguists, the latter preferring to use it in its literal sense only. A simple reason for this preference may be that the word stems from the Latin decem, meaning ten, and that it should therefore be used in that sense only.

We would say that this shift in meaning is irreversible and any opposition seems futile. Macquarie agrees: "It is now frequently used to refer to almost total destruction, but despite the weight of corpus evidence in favour of this shift in meaning, some writers still do not accept it."

The word has also been used to mean simply to kill, a use which is considered inappropriate by most people's standards.