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decimate

[des-uh-meyt]
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verb (used with object), dec·i·mat·ed, dec·i·mat·ing.
  1. to destroy a great number or proportion of: The population was decimated by a plague.
  2. to select by lot and kill every tenth person of.
  3. Obsolete. to take a tenth of or from.
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Origin of decimate

1590–1600; < Latin decimātus, past participle of decimāre “to punish every tenth man chosen by lot,” verbal derivative of decimus “tenth,” derivative of decem ten; see -ate1
Related formsdec·i·ma·tion, noundec·i·ma·tor, noun
Can be confuseddecimal decimatedecimate destroy (see usage note at the current entry)

Usage note

The earliest English sense of decimate is “to select by lot and execute every tenth soldier of (a unit).” The extended sense “destroy a great number or proportion of” developed in the 19th century: Cholera decimated the urban population. Because the etymological sense of one-tenth remains to some extent, decimate is not ordinarily used with exact fractions or percentages: Drought has destroyed (not decimated ) nearly 80 percent of the cattle.
Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2018


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British Dictionary definitions for decimation

decimate

verb (tr)
  1. to destroy or kill a large proportion ofa plague decimated the population
  2. (esp in the ancient Roman army) to kill every tenth man of (a mutinous section)
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Derived Formsdecimation, noundecimator, noun

Word Origin

C17: from Latin decimāre, from decimus tenth, from decem ten

usage

One talks about the whole of something being decimated, not a part: disease decimated the population, not disease decimated most of the population
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012

Word Origin and History for decimation

n.

mid-15c., from Late Latin decimationem (nominative decimatio), noun of action from past participle stem of Latin decimare "the removal or destruction of one-tenth," from decem "ten" (see ten). Earliest sense in English was of a tithe; punishment sense is from 1580s; transferred sense of "much destruction, severe loss" recorded from 1680s.

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decimate

v.

c.1600, in reference to the practice of punishing mutinous military units by capital execution of one in every 10, by lot; from Latin decimatus, past participle of decimare (see decimation). Killing one in ten, chosen by lots, from a rebellious city or a mutinous army was a common punishment in classical times. The word has been used (incorrectly, to the irritation of pedants) since 1660s for "destroy a large portion of." Related: Decimated; decimating.

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Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2010 Douglas Harper