Grammar Moses: If this column decimates your day, you're overreacting

Updated 9/7/2019 4:01 PM

"Trump actions continue to decimate farm country."

"Highly contagious swine fever could decimate the Australian pork industry."


"Dorian decimates the Bahamas."

"Grammar columnist decimates Wendy's Triple Baconator."

You see "decimate" in the headlines all of the time, and I know a good percentage of you are shouting "No, no, no. You have it all wrong. They're not eliminating a tenth of anything!"

For those of you taught English by the nuns in the 17th century (you see where I'm going with this) you learned that to "decimate" is to take a tenth of someone's money for taxes. Earlier, in Imperial Rome, decimatus described the punishment of a mutinous army: to kill one in 10 soldiers by lottery, presumably to nudge the other 90 percent to get with the program.

Yes, decimus means "tenth." But the practices once ascribed to "decimate" no longer exist and haven't since either you or I learned the word.

Sure, use it in historical context all you like, but do your best to let it go for contemporary usage.

The word today means to cause great loss of life or destroy a large part of something.

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My obsession with "decimate" doesn't end here. The word is used willy-nilly.

Let's examine the headlines I lead with:

It's probably safe to say that Dorian decimated parts of the Bahamas.

It's a certainty that I could decimate a Triple Baconator, if such a thing existed. The Baconator has only two patties. As such, I could do more than decimate it -- I could obliterate it.

"Decimate" falls short of the mark in describing something that is wiped off the face of the earth.

The converse also is true. A pimple can't "decimate" someone's appearance. And I write this with some authority, having squirmed through most of an episode of "Dr. Pimple Popper."

Perhaps the most on-target headline is the one about the swine flu's potential to decimate Australia's pork industry. It's easy to see how such a contagion could wipe out a lot of pigs.


If you're still having problems letting go of the Latin origins of "decimate," look upon modern usage as a metaphorical application.

Bad words

If you read book reviews, you've probably encountered it. And probably gagged, if I know you.

Jackie Nelson has read it and gagged, too.

"You wrote a column a couple of weeks ago about new words," she wrote. "One I've seen recently is 'unputdownable' in book reviews. It's so awkward I cringe every time I see it. What is your opinion?"

If it triggers my gag response, you know my opinion. It's a word born of a medieval torture rack.

Let me hear which newer words make you gag. We'll take a look at them one of these Sundays.

Write carefully!

• Jim Baumann is vice president/managing editor of the Daily Herald. Write him at Put Grammar Moses in the subject line. You also can friend or follow Jim at

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