What Does the Word Decimated Mean and How Did it Originate?

Around 1663, the word decimate began mean being destroyed through a catastrophe or severe loss.

But the word originated as a disciplinary practice of the Roman army.

Soldiers convicted of cowardice or mutiny were gathered into units of ten.

Lots were drawn, and the loser was decimated, clubbed and stoned to death, by the remaining nine.

Morale increased significantly after a Roman decimation.

After a decimation, the remaining nine convicted soldiers were given rations of barley instead of wheat and forced to sleep outside of the army encampment.

Although decimation inspired discipline and resolve, it was used sparingly because it significantly reduced troop strength.

About Karen Hill

Karen Hill is a freelance writer, editor, and columnist. Born in New York, her work has appeared in the Examiner, Yahoo News, Buzzfeed, among others.

1 thought on “What Does the Word Decimated Mean and How Did it Originate?”

  1. The Roman discipline method was a “Unit” punishment and involved the whole unit being paraded and every ten soldier was executed. This was done for units who retreated in what was considered a cowardly manner.

    Later use:

    c.1600, in reference to the practice of punishing mutinous military units by capital execution of one in every 10, by lot; from L. decimare “to take the tenth,” from decimus “tenth” (see decimation). It has been used (incorrectly, to the irritation of pedants) since 1660s for “destroy a large portion of.” Related: Decimated (c.1600); decimating (1660s).

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