Decimate, and other annoying words

Decimate. What does it mean?

Well, it’s a verb, defined by as follows:

1. to destroy a great number or proportion of

2. to select by lot and kill every tenth person of.

Oh, and then there’s the obsolete definition: 3. to take a tenth of or from.

Really? How did we water down this word from one-tenth to a great number? Statistically speaking, 10% barely meets quantifiable significance.  My family loves to bother me with this word, using it to describe mass destruction. I’m not really allowed to argue, although I cringe at every use of it. The word originated in the Roman legions, where mutiny was punished by decimating the company, literally. The same happened in concentration camps in WWII.

To extend this specific word into “a great portion of” bothers me. As much as I love the changing, living, breathing nature of the English language, it seems as if words can no longer be misapplied. Instead, they are adapted. When do we draw the line and bring a word back to its roots?

Do you have pet-peeve words? Ones that make you shudder and cringe and look over your shoulder for the ghosts of Shakespeare and Noah Webster? 


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