de-sê-mayt • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Verb, transitive
Meaning: 1. Originally, to reduce by one tenth; first used in the Roman army when every tenth deserter was put to death. 2. To reduce dramatically in size or number. 3. To inflict great damage or destruction.
Notes: Today's word is often used as a synonym of annihilate. The distinction reflected in these two words, however, is too important to ignore. To annihilate something is to destroy and remove all traces of it (from Latin nihil "nothing"). To decimate something is simply to reduce it dramatically. The verb may be used as a noun itself if you simply reduce the final syllable from -mayt to -mêt: a decimate [de-sê-mêt] "a tithe". There is also a regular action noun, decimation [de-sê-may-shên] "the act or process of decimating".
In Play: Today we have to be careful using decimate in its original sense, but with an appropriate qualifier, it can work if the person you are talking with is familiar with the word: "If we roughly decimate the deer population annually, it would actually strengthen the herds over time." The use of roughly in this sentence suggests that we are referring to a reduction of 10 percent. In the usually sense, the implication is more pejorative: "The staff cuts decimated the morale in the office and made it much more difficult to work there."
Word History: Today's Good Word originates in the same Latin stem as decimal "a tenth" from decem "ten", the same word that underlies dicker. The root dekm- in the ancient Proto-Indo-European language (PIE), from which most languages of Europe and India derive, is the source of Latin decem "ten". The month of December is so named because it was the tenth month of the Roman calendar. English ten and Russian deset' "ten", which descended from the same PIE root, show differences that accumulated over the roughly 7000 years since PIE was spoken. (Simply saying "thank you" to Eden Ellman for suggesting today's Good Word expresses only a decimate of our actual gratitude.)
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