Author Topic: How “decimate” and “salvage” evolved as verbs of destruction  (Read 5389 times)

Joe Carillo

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A Hong Kong-based Filipina English teacher, Isabel F., recently shared with me this story about the usage of a verb of destruction:

“I’m a longtime listener to BBC iPlayer Radio and early this morning, I caught the program ‘The Why Factor’ hosted by Mike Williams. He read out some of his listeners’ mail criticizing him for using the word ‘decimated’ to describe something that had been destroyed. They pointed out that ‘decimated’ really means having destroyed or killed 1 in 10, according to the historical fact that Roman legions would kill 1 in 10 men as a form of punishment.

“Williams said he consulted an authority, British journalist and writer Oliver Kamm, who told him that the criticism is pure pedantry because ‘decimated’ is accepted today to denote ‘destroy or demolish completely.’

“I thought that you, as a wordsmith, would be interested in this.”

Wordsmithing verbs of destruction in English

My reply to Isabel F.:

Your account of how the verb “decimate” evolved definitely interests me but not as a “wordsmith” in the context of being a word expert but only as one who happens to work with words as a source of livelihood. I’m making that distinction to make it clear that I’m not putting myself in the same league as Oliver Kamm, whose book on grammar, Accidence Will Happen: The Non-Pedantic Guide to English Usage, I featured in Jose Carillo’s English Forum recently (

Yes, I absolutely agree with Kamm that it’s pure pedantry—the unimaginative emphasis of minutiae in the use of knowledge—to insist that “decimated” be limited to the sense of having destroyed or killed 1 in 10. That’s its original sense, of course, having come from the Latin “decimatus,” for the practice of punishing mutinous Roman military units by the brutal execution of one soldier, chosen by lot, in every 10.”

Over the centuries, however, “decimate” had evolved in usage to mean “exacting a tax of 10 per cent.” It later lost the percentage aspect to mean just “reducing drastically especially in number,” as in “Unchecked urban migration severely decimated the rural population.” Eventually, it also became generic for “causing great destruction or harm,” as in “Serious citizenship and residency questions could decimate the poll-survey frontrunner’s chances of winning the presidency.”

Those are vast leaps in the meaning of “decimate” as a verb of destruction. But if some British English speakers find them disturbing, they would likely be shocked—nay, infuriated—to know that English speakers elsewhere in the world are even more aggressive in wordsmithing verbs like “decimate” beyond recognition.

Among Filipino speakers of English, in particular, the verb “salvage” has suffered an even worse fate. We all know that “salvage” normally means to rescue or save someone or something from wreckage or ruin, as in “Victims of Typhoon Lando came back to salvage their belongings from their devastated homes.” In recent years, however, “salvage” acquired the opposite meaning of “to kill” or “to assassinate,” as in “Which is a better way to deal with a serial plunderer—to salvage him or jail him for life?”

The website describes that sense of “salvage” matter-of-factly: “The word gets a whole new meaning when used in the Philippines wherein it has become synonymous to murder. To salvage is to kill. The word is often used by the media in referring to murder cases wherein the victims were put to death for being criminals. The victims are aptly called salvage victims. So if you are reading this and you happen to be a non-Filipino, consider yourself warned. When a Filipino says he’s going to salvage you, he’s not going to save you, he’s going to do just the opposite.”

In a very real sense, therefore, the benign “salvage” has become a verb of destruction in much the same way as “decimate”—only much deadlier.   

This essay first appeared in the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, October 24, 2015 issue © 2015 by Manila Times Publishing. All rights reserved.
« Last Edit: November 01, 2015, 07:05:11 AM by Joe Carillo »