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'Decimate'
It Takes Ten, Roughly

By Evan Jenkins

The word “decimate” literally means to reduce by a tenth, from the legendary Roman practice of killing every tenth man in a mutinous or otherwise dicey military outfit on the ground that at all costs, discipline must be maintained. The word has come to mean to destroy, put out of action or seriously damage a large part of a body of people or things — “the U.S. fleet had been decimated at Pearl Harbor” works, as does “the tree-chomping beetles that decimated Greenpoint, Brooklyn, two years ago.” But it seemed a real stretch when the eloquent elder statesman said the scandal of our times had “decimated” the president’s family, which numbered three. How, then, account for the review that said a performance let a play’s audience walk “right into the mind of its decimated hero”? Applying “decimate” to an individual person or thing is more than a stretch. It makes meaningless a word with a clear and honorable pedigree.

CJR

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Sept / Oct 08

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