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Definition of decimate from the
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On Language: Do You Mean Decimate or Devastate?

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:


Definition from Wiktionary, the free dictionary

Jump to navigation Jump to search English Wikipedia has an article on:

decimation (Roman army)


Borrowed from Latin decimāre (“to take or offer a tenth part”), from decimus (“tenth”).[1] As a noun, via Latin decimatus (“tithing area; tithing rights”).[2]

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decimate (third-person singular simple present decimates, present participle decimating, simple past and past participle decimated)

  1. (archaic) To kill one-tenth of a group, (historical, specifically) as a military punishment in the Roman army selected by lot, usually carried out by the surviving soldiers.
    • c. 1650, Jeremy Taylor, Vol. I:
      God sometimes decimates or tithes delinquent persons, and they died for a common crime, according as God hath cast their lot in the decrees of predestination.
    • 1989, Basil Davidson, “The Ancient World and Africa” in Egypt Revisited, p. 49:
      Said to have been martyred as a Christian legionary commander of late Roman times for having refused an imperial order to kill one in ten (that is, decimate in the Roman meaning of the word) of the soldiers of another legion which had gone into revolt…
    • 1998, Adrian Goldsworthy, The Roman Army at War, p. 263:
      …where Caesar threatened to disband Legio X after a mutiny. The men begged him to decimate them instead, and Caesar relented in the same way that Titus refrained from executing this cavalryman after his comrades’ appeal.
    • 2007, Russell T. Davies, Doctor Who, “The Sound of Drums”:
      Shall we decimate them? That sounds good, nice word. Remove one-tenth of the population!
  2. To destroy or remove one-tenth of anything.
    • 1840, P.J. Proudhon, What is Property?, p. 164:
      …there will be eight hundred and ten laborers producing as nine hundred, while, to accomplish their purpose, they would have to produce as one thousand… Here, then, we have a society which is continually decimating itself…
  3. (loosely) To devastate: to reduce or destroy significantly but not completely.
    • p. 1856, James Froude, History of England from the fall of Wolsey to the death of Elizabeth:
      [England] had decimated itself for a question which involved no principle, and led to no result.
    • 1996, Star Trek: Voyager (TV series), Flashback (episode)
      Um, some sort of power overload. I'm afraid it decimated your breakfast.
    • 2017 July 23, Brandon Nowalk, “The great game begins with a bang on Game Of Thrones (newbies)”, in The Onion AV Club‎[1]:What this attack represents is more powerful than the attack sequence itself, which is a double-edged sword, but let’s start with the positive. If what we see is any indication, Euron has decimated Yara’s fleet and cut it off before it was able to fetch the Dornish army.
  4. (obsolete) To exact a tithe or other 10% tax
    • 1669, John Dryden, “The Wild Gallant”:
      I have heard you are as poor as a decimated Cavalier [referring to Cromwell's ten per cent. income-tax on Cavaliers], and had not one foot of land in all the world.
    • 1819, John Lingard, History of England, p. 352:
      In addition, an ordinance was published that “all who had ever borne arms for the king, or declared themselves to be of the royal party, should be decimated, that is, pay a tenth part of all the estate which they had left, to support the charge which the commonwealth was put to…
  5. (obsolete, rare) To tithe: to pay a 10% tax.
  6. (obsolete) To decimalize: to divide into tenths, hundredths etc.
  7. (proscribed) To reduce to one-tenth: to destroy or remove nine-tenths of anything.
    • 1998, H. Wayne House, ed., Israel, the Land and the People, p. 63:
      In this dramatic picture, the nation is literally decimated, and even the tenth which remains is subjected to a further destruction.
    • 2003, Susan S. Hunter, Black Death, p. 58:
      African slaves were needed to replace Native American populations that had been decimated (literally reduced to one-tenth their size) by European conquest.
    • 2005, Wilma A. Dunaway, “Put in Master’s Pocket” in Appalachians and Race, p. 116:
      In the New World, European colonists initially enslaved Native Americans, decimating the indigenous populations to one-tenth of their original sizes.
  8. (computer graphics) To replace a high-resolution model with another of lower but acceptable quality.
    • 1999, Mihalisin & al., “Visualizing Multivariate Functions, Data and Distributions” in Readings in Information Visualization: Using Vision to Think, p. 122:
      A decimate tool allows us to obtain a more coarse-grained view of the data over the full n-dimensional space.
    • 2001, Inside 3Ds Max 4, p. 56:
      However, many times it is more practical to decimate existing high-res models because of time, money or manpower issues.
    • 2004, Geremy Heitz & al., “Automatic Generation of Shape Models using Nonrigid Registration with a Single Segmented Template Mesh” in Vision Modeling and Visualization 2004, p. 74:
      Given this initial fine mesh, we smooth and decimate it to a desired mesh resolution.

Usage notes[edit]

Senses of decimate other than “to reduce by one in ten” are occasionally proscribed but “to devastate” has now become the more common usage.[1][3] The sense “to reduce to one in ten” is etymologically unsound and omitted by the OED but increasingly common.

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Coordinate terms[edit]

Derived terms[edit]

  • decimater, decimator
  • decimating
  • decimation



The translations below need to be checked and inserted above into the appropriate translation tables, removing any numbers. Numbers do not necessarily match those in definitions. See instructions at Wiktionary:Entry layout#Translations.


decimate (plural decimates)


  1. ↑ 1.0 1.1 Oxford English Dictionary, 3rd ed. “decimate, v.” Oxford University Press (Oxford), 2015.
  2. ^ Oxford English Dictionary, 3rd ed. “† decimate, n.” Oxford University Press (Oxford), 2015.
  3. ^ Cambridge Guide to English Usage, p. 144.






  1. second-person plural present active imperative of decimō

Decimation (Roman army)

Traditional military punishment
Decimation. Etching by William Hogarth in Beaver's Roman Military Punishments (1725)

Decimation (Latin: decimatio; decem = “ten”) was a form of Roman military discipline in which every tenth man in a group was executed by members of his cohort. The discipline was used by senior commanders in the Roman Army to punish units or large groups guilty of capital offences, such as cowardice, mutiny, desertion, and insubordination, and for pacification of rebellious legions. The word decimation is derived from Latin meaning “removal of a tenth”.[1]
The procedure was a pragmatic attempt to balance the need to punish serious offences with the realities of managing a large group of offenders.[2]


A cohort (roughly 480 soldiers) selected for punishment by decimation was divided into groups of ten.

Each group drew lots (sortition), and the soldier on whom the lot of the shortest straw fell was executed by his nine comrades, often by stoning, clubbing, or stabbing.

The remaining soldiers were often given rations of barley instead of wheat (the latter being the standard soldier's diet) for a few days, and required to bivouac outside the fortified security of the camp for some time.[3]

As the punishment fell by lot, all soldiers in a group sentenced to decimation were potentially liable for execution, regardless of individual degrees of fault, rank, or distinction.


The earliest documented decimation occurred in 471 BC during the Roman Republic's early wars against the Volsci and is recorded by Livy.

In an incident where his army had been scattered, consul Appius Claudius Sabinus Regillensis had the culprits punished for desertion: centurions, standard-bearers and soldiers who had cast away their weapons were individually scourged and beheaded, while of the remainder, one in ten were chosen by lot and executed.[4]

Polybius gives one of the first descriptions of the practice in the early 3rd century BC:

If ever these same things happen to occur among a large group of men… the officers reject the idea of bludgeoning or slaughtering all the men involved [as is the case with a small group or an individual]. Instead they find a solution for the situation which chooses by a lottery system sometimes five, sometimes eight, sometimes twenty of these men, always calculating the number in this group with reference to the whole unit of offenders so that this group forms one-tenth of all those guilty of cowardice. And these men who are chosen by lot are bludgeoned mercilessly in the manner described above.[2]

The practice was revived by Marcus Licinius Crassus in 71 BC during the Third Servile War against Spartacus, and some historical sources attribute part of Crassus' success to it. The total number of men killed through decimation is not known, but it varied on occasion between 1,000 from 10,000 men and 48-50 from a cohort of around 480-500 men.

Julius Caesar threatened to decimate the 9th Legion during the war against Pompey, but never did.[5]

Plutarch describes the process in his work Life of Antony.[6] After a defeat in Media:

Antony was furious and employed the punishment known as “decimation” on those who had lost their nerve. What he did was divide the whole lot of them into groups of ten, and then he killed one from each group, who was chosen by lot; the rest, on his orders were given barley rations instead of wheat.[7]

Decimation was still being practised during the time of the Roman Empire, although it was very uncommon.

Suetonius records that it was used by Emperor Augustus in 17 BC[8] and later by Galba,[9] while Tacitus records that Lucius Apronius used decimation to punish a full cohort of the III Augusta after their defeat by Tacfarinas in AD 20.[10] G.R.

Watson notes that “its appeal was to those obsessed with nimio amore antiqui moris” – that is, an excessive love for ancient customs – and notes, “Decimation itself, however, was ultimately doomed, for though the army might be prepared to assist in the execution of innocent slaves, professional soldiers could hardly be expected to cooperate in the indiscriminate execution of their own comrades.”[11] The emperor Macrinus instituted a less harsh centesimatio, the execution of every 100th man.[12]

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According to legend, the Theban Legion, led by Saint Maurice, was decimated in the third century AD.[13] The Legion had refused, to a man, to accede to an order of the Emperor, and the process was repeated until none were left. They became known as the Martyrs of Agaunum.

The Eastern Roman Emperor Maurice forbade in his Strategikon the decimatio and other brutal punishments. According to him, punishments where the rank and file see their comrades dying by the hands of their own brothers-in-arms could lead to a collapse of morale. Moreover, it could seriously deplete the manpower of the fighting unit.

Post-classical instances

17th century

Von Sparr's cuirassier regiment in Gottfried Heinrich Graf zu Pappenheim's corps fled the field during the Battle of Lützen (1632) during the Thirty Years' War.

The Imperial commander, Wallenstein, appointed a court martial, which directed the execution of the officer in command, Col Hagen, together with Lt Col Hofkirchen, ten other officers and five troopers.

They were beheaded with the sword, while two men found guilty of looting the baggage were sentenced to a less honourable death by hanging.

The remaining troopers were decimated, one in every ten cavalrymen being hanged; the others were assembled beneath the gallows, beaten, branded and declared outlaws. Their standards were burned by an executioner after the Emperor's monogram had been cut from the fabric.[14]

Decimate | Definition of Decimate by Oxford Dictionary on Lexico.com also meaning of Decimate

  • 1Kill, destroy, or remove a large proportion of.

    ‘the inhabitants of the country had been decimated’

    • ‘A University of Sydney researcher is claiming up to a third of our snake species could be decimated.’
    • ‘The idea grew out of an effort to save highly endangered Micronesian kingfishers in Guam, where many bird species had been decimated by a brown snake invasion.’
    • ‘Prior to 1990 the species had been decimated by a combination of habitat loss and capture of birds for the pet trade, and was considered extinct in the wild.’
    • ‘Native clam populations in the Great Lakes have been decimated, and other species that compete for food with the mussels are in sharp decline.’
    • ‘At the same time some of the native species that were decimated by the Nile Perch, or were even thought extinct, were coming back.’
    • ‘Of course, if a walker happened to stumble on the nest of one of the few remaining pairs of a species which has been decimated by farming practices, damage could result.’
    • ‘Yet both dam projects would decimate the very scrubland the lynx depends on.’
    • ‘The fishing fleet may have been decimated, and the pits and shipyards may have been replaced by air-conditioned call centres, but Britain's industrial heritage lives on in song.’
    • ‘Scotland's fishing fleet has been decimated and the rest of us were as powerless as the Scottish Minister for Fishing.’
    • ‘The big fleet in Thailand was decimated in a fire at the Royal Varuna Club several years ago, though there are still a few ‘vintage’ boats at Varuna.’
    • ‘Populations of these invertebrates have been decimated or even eradicated in areas where wasps are common.’
    • ‘Fields are still small, there are no huge modern sheds and the pastures are rich in species that would otherwise have been decimated by modern farming methods.’
    • ‘Thousands of bee swarms in the central Eastern Cape have been decimated by a deadly blood-sucking Asian mite which destroys the male drone bees and damages female worker bees.’
    • ‘Trees are hard to kill, but their populations can be decimated by the same types of parasitic or bacterial plagues that can destroy human populations.’
    • ‘Those groups are the remnants of populations that were decimated by whalers and other seafarers who killed the creatures for food.’
    • ‘A lot of the bird species here, particularly the migratory waders, have been decimated.’
    • ‘Extensive wetlands in Sonora have been decimated by irrigated agriculture and urbanization.’
    • ‘The plague decimated the working population of Europe, and this left large tracts of land vacant.’
    • ‘A huge Scots army was decimated, thousands killed, enslaved, or exiled.’
    • ‘Encroachment by farmers and livestock was already decimating the park's wildlife.’

    get rid of, eliminate, do away with, remove, suppress

  • 2historical Kill one in every ten of (a group of people, originally a mutinous Roman legion) as a punishment for the whole group.

    ‘the man who is to determine whether it be necessary to decimate a large body of mutineers’

    • ‘Augustus firmly imposed his discipline on his men: he once dismissed an entire legion in disgrace, and didn't hesitate to decimate troops who would give in to the enemy.’
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