An example of decimate is for a natural disaster to kill a large portion of a population.
transitive verb-·mat·ed, -·mat·ing
- Obs. to select by lot and kill every tenth one of
- to destroy or kill a large part of: famine decimated the population
- Obs. to take a tenth part of; tithe
Origin of decimatefrom Classical Latin decimatus, past participle of decimare from decem, ten
transitive verbdec·i·mat·ed, dec·i·mat·ing, dec·i·mates
- To destroy or kill a large part of (a group of people or organisms).
- Usage Problem a. To inflict great destruction or damage on: The storm decimated the region.b. To reduce markedly in amount: a profligate heir who decimated his trust fund.
- To select by lot and kill one in every ten of (a group of soldiers).
Origin of decimateLatin decimāre decimāt- to punish every tenth person from decimus tenth from decem ten ; see dek&mlowring; in Indo-European roots.
Usage Note: Decimate originally referred to the killing of every tenth person, a punishment used in the Roman army for mutinous legions. Today this meaning is commonly extended to include the killing of any large proportion of a population. In our 2005 survey, 81 percent of the Usage Panel accepts this extension in the sentence The Jewish population of Germany was decimated by the war, even though it is common knowledge that the number of Jews killed was much greater than a tenth of the original population. This is an increase from the 66 percent who accepted this sentence in our 1988 survey. However, the Panel is less accepting of usages that extend the meaning to include large-scale destruction other than killing, as in The supply of fresh produce was decimated by the nuclear accident at Chernobyl. Some 36 percent accepted this sentence in 2005, up from 26 percent in 1988, but still a decided minority.
(third-person singular simple present decimates, present participle decimating, simple past and past participle decimated)
- (Roman history) To kill one man chosen by lot out of every ten in a legion or other military group.
- To reduce anything by one in ten, or ten percent.
- (historical) To exact a tithe or tax of 10 percent.
- To reduce to one-tenth.
- To severely reduce; to destroy almost completely.
- (computer graphics) To replace a high-resolution model with one of lower resolution but acceptably similar appearance.
The definition reduce by one in ten is occasionally cited as "the correct" definition, with severely reduce considered a misconception, arrived at by reading decimate as to reduce to one-tenth rather than by one-tenth.
The Cambridge Guide to English Usage states that the nonspecific use of this word to mean devastate or severely reduce the numbers of is "nowadays the commonest use of the word in both British and American English, and it’s registered without comment in modern dictionaries." It also advises against using numbers with the term, as "They are redundant where it means 'reduce by one tenth', and where it doesn't they confound the arithmetic."
The 23 occurrences of decimate in the British National Corpus — compare decimates, decimated, and decimating — almost all clearly accord with the nonspecific sense. The only references to the historical sense are two complaints about modern usage and its critics. Neither of these actually uses the term to mean "reduce by one-tenth".