Style Matters #8: Deci- … mate, are we razing our ability to calculate?

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Yesterday I was reading about the awful fires in Arizona that claimed the lives of 19 brave firefighters when this sentence caught my eye:

Officials said they expected about half of Yarnell Hill’s 500 homes to be decimated by the fire that is currently burning with zero containment and has grown well past 810 hectares.

It’s not the first time that I have noticed the root word decimate misused in news reports. I doubt it will be the last, but for those keen to understand why it has been wrongly used in this context, we need to look back at the word’s origins.

Firstly, deci- (used as a prefix and derived from the Latin word decimus) means one-tenth. It appears in words such as decibel, decimal and decimetre, which in some places is spelled decimeter and refers to 1/10th of a metre (meter). It also has a distant link to the practice of tithing (the collection of one-tenth of a person’s income or wealth).

Wikipedia (citing American Heritage Dictionary):
Decimation (Latin: decimatio; decem = “ten“) was a form of military discipline used by senior commanders in the Roman Army to punish mutinous or cowardly soldiers. The word decimation is derived from Latin meaning “removal of a tenth”

Merriam-Webster online:
To select by lot and kill every 10th man of (or to exact a tax of 10 per cent from)

Urban Dictionary online:
A frequently misused word. Decimate literally means to reduce something by a tenth

Now my mathematics might be rusty, but half of 500 homes would certainly be 50 per cent of them, which would be five times the number destroyed than if the fires had truly decimated the region’s homes.

A better root word would probably have been obliterate (which means to remove from existence; destroy utterly; to wipe out), having already established that 250 homes were likely to be lost.

(Also the use of the word currently is both redundant and problematic in this sentence. It is redundant because the shorter phrase is burning does the job. The nature of news, too, is that the situation moves on, but not all online stories are updated so currently may have been correct at the time of posting but will not stay that way indefinitely.)

And while we’re on the topic of linguistic precision, last night I heard a television newsreader utter the words, about a much smaller fire in our city, that a home had been razed to the ground.

Again, the last three words are redundant, as the word raze means to destroy to the ground (as in raze an old building).

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If you like what you’ve read here, you can see reporting4work’s similar posts at Style Matters

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3 responses to “Style Matters #8: Deci- … mate, are we razing our ability to calculate?

  1. Thanks. Hope the technical issues have righted themselves. I’m so looking forward to the NBN getting around to our place! Sadly, that’s a few years away still.

  2. Thanks. Am attempting to post something each weekday and you can opt to follow the blog below. Cheers, T

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