ENC 1101 Thursday 6:30
April 4, 2013
The Decimation of Decimation The word decimate in the English language has come to mean to destroy or slaughter something, but the word has an older historical meaning. The military context of the word can be traced back to the Romans, where the decimation of a military unit was a form of punishment and a way of enforcing military discipline. The word decimate comes from the Latin word decimare, meaning to take or destroy one-tenth, from the Latin word decem, meaning ten. Under debate today, the word can be used in a less mathematical context and still be grammatically correct.
The historical meaning of decimate originated from the roman punishment, decimation. For a Roman legion deemed to have failed in its duties, decimation was the punishment. This meant that one in ten legionnaires would be selected, stripped of their armor and beaten to death by their comrades. Marcus Licinius Crassus enforced an example of this during his campaign in 71 BC in the third servile war against the renegade gladiator, Spartacus. Crassus’ legate Mummius engaged the rebel gladiators early, against Crassus’ wishes and was defeated. Five hundred men of the legion involved were deemed to have shown cowardice, and Crassus commanded for one-tenth of them killed. One soldier in every ten was selected by lot, then stoned or clubbed. Strong parallels can also be drawn between the actions of Crassus, and those of the Soviet Union's commissars in World War 2 whose role was to install discipline and restore morale, often in a brutal fashion and frequently with the deaths of those thought to be showing cowardice. Soviet division commanders practiced decimation on deserters by walking down the line of soldiers at attention and shooting every tenth soldier in the face until their pistol ran out of ammunition.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the original and now obsolete definition is in fact financial, about tithing or taxing to the amount of one-tenth of something. The OED, however, reports that decimate also has come to mean, "To destroy or remove a large proportion of; to subject to severe loss, slaughter, or mortality". For nearly three and a half centuries, every use of the word decimate has been in this extended sense, except when referring to the harsh old Roman practice. These days, such references seem limited to complaints about the word decimate itself. However, even though there is scant evidence in the history of Standard English usage to support the idea that