Every week I will demonstrate an example of poor English where a different word is used from the one intended. Sometimes this creates a grammatically incorrect sentence. Unfortunately, the mistake is usually so pervasive that we all do it and such errors are usually made by those who should know better – journalists working for national or global media outlets such as newspapers and television
Decimate / Annihilate
Another case where two words are used interchangeably because they sound rather destructive in nature – and they are. However, one of these words implies that destruction is far less extensive compared to the other. Do you know which one?
Decimate means to reduce by 10% – it does not mean utter destruction (which of course is the correct usage of the word annihilate). This is inferred from the Dec- suffix (ten)
The term is Roman in origin. It was a punishment meted out to groups of soldiers – usually for desertion or mutiny – the sort of things you might have faced a firing squad for more recently. The commanders would give out tesserae, usually 10% would be one colour and 90% would be another colour. Those with the 10% colour would be killed. It was random so no soldier was safe; it was an extreme form of punishment for extreme lack of military discipline.
So next time somebody says that their cabbage patch has been decimated by slugs, tell them to look on bright side because the other 90% is still ok!