We use the verb ‘to decimate’ as a synonym for annihilate, massacre or slaughter; a general term meaning to kill or destroy in large numbers. But that’s not strictly accurate. The word ‘decimate’ comes from a particularly vindictive form of collective punishment in ancient Rome. A batch of mutinous soldiers/recalcitrant townsfolk/unruly slaves would be divided into groups of ten, and then one unfortunate from each group would be chosen by lot to be executed, reducing their overall number by one-tenth (the Latin decem). So next time you use ‘decimated’ in casual conversation, make sure you herd your audience into groups of ten first.
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