On Language

On Language: Do You Mean Decimate or Devastate?

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Updated 10/27 2:15 p.m. (Click for the latest): A sentimental note from a supervising senior producer.

Accuracy in word choice matters, and we appreciate hearing from you when the choices made by NPR hosts and reporters are questionable. Or wrong. John Hicks-Courant from Palm Harbor, FL, recently wrote:

NPR's journalists routinely use the word "decimate" when they mean to denote "completely ruined or destroyed." "Decimate" means to kill every tenth person or soldier as a means of mass punishment.

How in the world can a town or country be decimated? It can't possibly.

The word they should be using to mean" completely ruined or destroyed" is "devastated."

We counted, and "decimate" or "decimated" has been said 44 times on-air in the last year, not including hourly newscasts. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, Hicks-Courant is partially correct about the definition. The military usage means, "To select by lot and put to death one in every ten of (a body of soldiers guilty of mutiny or other crime): apractice in the ancient Roman army, sometimes followed in later times."

According to the 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 "rhetorically or loosely" to mean, "To destroy or remove a large proportion of; to subject to severe loss, slaughter, or mortality."

The NPR journalists aren't wrong, in other words. But if we decimated

the newsroom, we would be sure to get the attention of the remaining 90 percent of the staffers to snap to and speak precisely, with none of this loose usage stuff.

Updated 10/27 2:15 p.m.

Language mavens are very particular about which dictionaries they prefer and cite. Inside NPR, the official dictionary is Webster's New World. Susan Vavrick, an NPR librarian, was quick to note this and take exception to my quoting the Oxford English Dictionary on the definition of "decimate." According to Webster's New World, both the military and the tithing meanings of the word —to kill or tax a tenth—are obsolete, at least in this country.

But Joe Matazzoni, senior supervising producer for Arts & Life desk, offered a sentimental note with which all the mavens might agree:

I think the people who defend the original meaning of 'decimate' do so in part because we feel it's sad to lose a word for describing something so precisely and in a way that evokes such history. I guess one can substitute 'collective punishment' or 'culling.' But every time we let word meanings bleed together, it's like a little star winking out.

Read more from the ombudsman on language:

The Ghost of Poland, Jews and Death Camps (October 6, 2011)
You Say Tomato, I Say Tomahto (September 26, 2011)

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