Monday, October 21, 2013

Decimate the Lightning Bugs

“The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” Mark Twain

Let's talk about the word decimate. It's a lightning word when used correctly, but more often than not it's used as a lightning bug.

Through poor usage, decimate has come to mean 'kill, destroy, or remove a large percentage or part of'. However, for those who know the historical origins of the word, the usage of the word to describe something being destroyed or nearly-destroyed makes them squirm.

It was a form of Roman legionary punishment, meted out by the military commanders to enforce discipline. A cohort was broken up into groups of ten, and lots were drawn. One unlucky soldier in the group would draw the bad lot, and then was killed by the nine remaining soldiers in the group, usually by clubbing him to death. Strictly speaking, decimate means 'to reduce by ten percent' (the root word is decimus, here, which means 'tenth', and eventually evolved into our English word decimal in the 17th century).

Whenever I hear 'the troops were decimated in the battle', I think: Ten percent casualties, during war? Acceptable losses! The remaining ninety percent can go on fighting!

Yes, language evolves and changes, and word meanings are constantly in flux. For those in the know, however, the lightning bug usage of decimate is an abomination.

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