Decimated? Devastated? Or Just Damaged

Photo by Ante Hamersmit on Unsplash

Guess what? You might be in the minority. By that, I mean those who understand the real meaning of ‘decimated’. Most don’t.

If you want an example, here’s a beauty! This is a snippet from an account of a road accident: ‘… the impact fully decimated half the car’.

Your challenge is this: ‘How much damage was done to the car?’ Hint: you might need maths.

More about that in a minute.

First, consider this:

A company of 100 men marched into battle. The fighting was fierce and the company was decimated. How many men remained?

Answer: 90. Ten were killed.

Yes, ‘decimated’ means ‘reduced by one-tenth’. It is, admittedly, an ancient term of Latin origin. The Romans used decimation as a punishment; they would take and kill one in every ten men in a village or town, as a way of subduing or intimidating the rest.

Real devastation

‘Decimated’ is still a useful term to use, for example, when talking about the effects of disease or pandemic — as in, ‘the flu decimated the population of the area’.

Unfortunately, people usually misuse the word — often as a synonym for ‘devastated’ or ‘annihilated’.

In the fourteenth century, the Black Death killed up to 60% of some populations in Europe. That really is devastation!

By contrast, ‘decimation’ would have seen a death toll of 10%. Still dreadful, but a big difference. Huge!

Back to the car….

‘… the impact fully decimated half the car’ is, to be honest, just nonsense.

  • ‘Destroyed’, or ‘damaged’ would be more accurate words.
  • ‘Decimated’ only really works with ‘countables’ — numbers of cars — not one, and certainly not half a car.
  • ‘Fully decimated’ is ridiculous; either it was, or it wasn’t.

Even if you ignore all that, try to answer my original question: ‘How much damage was done to the car?’

The best answer would be: ‘The impact (completely) obliterated one-tenth of half the car’. My maths makes that one twentieth, which probably means a bumper bar and a bit more. Who knows?

But not too much devastation, really.

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Janette Parr

Janette Parr

Writer and editor. Learning consultant in Human Skills and Better Communication — janetteparrconsulting.com