To boldly decimate


CONTENT ADVISORY: contains grammar triggers.


Have you got the decimate bug yet? Come on, we’re friends, we can be honest with each other. Sometimes admitting a painful truth can be cathartic. It’s good to let it out. My name is Will and I am a former decimation junkie.

Maybe that means nothing to you. I had better explain.

The process of decimation comes from Ancient Rome. Of course, they didn’t call themselves Ancient Rome back in the day, just as Ye Olde Kings Head pub wasn’t “ye olde” when it was “ye younge”. But we digress.


If a Roman army had a poor performance, say a home loss to the Barbarians, they could be punished with decimation. They would be split into groups of ten men – hence the “dec” in decimation. They would then choose one of the ten at random, say by drawing straws. The remaining nine would then club or stone the unlucky tenth to death. Nasty.

Sometimes these disgraced soldiers were also given a ration of barley instead of their normal wheat. Which somehow doesn’t sound quite so bad as the clubbing and stoning, both of which have different meanings these days.

So there you have it. Decimation means “to reduce by a tenth”. A group of 100 soldiers would be reduced to 90. All nice and logical and very Roman. You get the impression that they could organise anything, including a you-know-what in a brewery.

There, I have gone and done it. If you weren’t afflicted by the decimation bug, you are now. I am truly sorry. Like one vampire infecting another, you are one of the dark brotherhood now.

Billy Connolly (the Scottish comedian) used to tell a story about getting his nipple pierced. After the operation, his tattooist (piercist?) said: “That’s one more of us and one less of them.”

Now you know the secret of decimation, that’s one more of us and one less of them.

From this point on, your senses will be attuned to any utterance of the word “decimation”, just as a vampire can sniff out a fresh veinful of O negative.

Because 90% of the world gets decimation wrong. Some of them think it means to reduce to a tenth. From 100 down to 10. Some don’t even notice the “dec” bit at all and presume it means “a chuffing large amount of destruction”.

Now you know the secret, you will want to correct them. Poor deluded fools that they are. They need to be guided into the ways of enlightenment. One more of us and one less of them.

And that’s the thing about the internet. Or one of the things, at the very least. It’s a way for us all to assert our superiority by spotting other people making mistakes. Pah – he used “decimation” wrongly! What a numpty.

You see something similar when people drive. Some of us (and I have to hold up a sheepish hand here – not that sheep have hands) … where was I? … some of us take great delight in other drivers making mistakes. Look at that idiot – he has forgotten to cancel his indicators. Talking on a mobile phone. Not wearing a seat belt. Driving a BMW.

My dear wife has a little hangup (no, not that one!) about the difference between “fewer” and “less”. We can have fewer sugar lumps and less sugar, but we cannot have less sugar lumps and fewer sugar. She passed this particular bug on to me, and now I prickle with righteous annoyance when the supermarket aisle says “five items of less”. Fewer! Fewer!

And I still struggle with split infinitives. The story goes something like this. For centuries there was absolutely nothing wrong with constructions like “to boldly go”. Then someone (or probably several someones) decided that it was naughty because the verb was “to” and “go”. In other words, they were a married couple and shouldn’t allow another word to join them in a grammatical menage a trois.

That was what I was taught, and still bear the scars on my oft-slapped hand for getting it wrong. Apparently, Moses was given three tablets with fifteen commandments, but they were a bit heavy. He left one behind – the one that starts with “11. Thou shalt not split an infinitive”. No-one is exactly sure, but archaeologists and theologians believe that the remaining four include “red wine with meat and white with fish” and “no, her bum/butt doesn’t look big in that.”

But then the Economist magazine decided that split infinitives were okay again. Now, I am the one in the wrong for pointing them out. Heck, but it’s confusing being a pedant.

Don’t even get me started on its/ it’s. The humble apostrophe has caused so much grief that we should probably ban it. I swear it has caused more marital breakups than a mid-life crises and miniskirts. Not that it’s easy to get a miniskirt in my size.

I even left in one errant apostrophe for you to spot. Hands up anyone who wanted to quibble about “Kings Head” earlier? Should that be “King’s Head” – one head belonging to one king? Or perhaps it should be “Kings’ Head” – one head belonging to several kings?

I once sat through more than an hour of debate about whether a writer’s circle should be a writers’ circle. Until someone pointed out that you can hardly be a circle if there is just one of you.

Let’s admit it … we get a little thrill of pleasure when someone else commits one of these “crimes”. Just as the purpose of Sainsbury’s is to keep the riffraff out of Waitrose, so the purpose of these little crimes is to distinguish us from them. And we don’t need to get our nipples pierced to join this club.

a someone is wrong on the internet1

I have to admit that I am mellowing on “decimate”. Sure, the Romans meant “to reduce by a tenth” and we tend to be a bit less precise these days. But a tenth of an army is still a large number of people. And it wouldn’t feel like “only” 10% if you look down at your hand and realise that your straw is markedly shorter than the ones held by your nine colleagues.

The great flu epidemic of 1919 killed between 20 million and 40 million people – far more than the First World War. Can we say that countries and communities were decimated by this epidemic? A pedant might say that it was “only” 2-3% of the world’s population, which doesn’t quite qualify for decimation status. But I have to say that “decimation” feels about right. It has become a way of saying “bloody awful” and there is nothing wrong with that.

Language changes and evolves. So sure we don’t usually use decimation in its precise historical meaning. And yes the clue is in the title – “dec” means 10.

But maybe this ought to be about finding ways to agree with each other and not pick faults. Does it really matter?

Perhaps that would be a better version of “one more of us and one less of them”. I know the decimation means “reduce by a tenth”, but I will suppress the urge to want to correct anyone out there who doesn’t yet know it.

My name is Will and I am a former decimation junkie. I haven’t had a decimation for … ooh, about a paragraph ago.


3 thoughts on “To boldly decimate

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s