FACT CHECK: Time Magazine Incorrectly Used Word ‘Decimate’ in Joe Biden Fact-Check

Elias Atienza | Senior Reporter

Time Magazine reported that “by the technical definition of the word “decimate”—to reduce to 1/10th of the original” in a fact-check of President Joe Biden.

Verdict: False

The definition means to reduce by 10%, not to reduce to 10%. Time issued a correction and removed the sentence.

Fact Check:

Biden sat down with Time Magazine for an interview, which focused mostly on his foreign policy but covered other topics. Time Magazine published a fact-check of claims Biden made, one of which was about his claim that the Russian military had been “decimated” during its invasion of Ukraine.

“By December of last year, 315,000 Russian troops had been either killed or injured in the war—a reduction in troop strength by 87%. Even by the technical definition of the word ‘decimate’—to reduce to 1/10th of the original—Biden’s characterization is accurate,” Time Magazine reported.

The “technical definition” of decimate is not “to reduce to 1/10th of the original.” According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary’s website, while there are several definitions of decimate, the relation to numbers means “to exact a tax of 10 percent from.”

Merrian-Webster also states that “the connection between decimate and the number ten harks back to a brutal practice of the army of ancient Rome.”

“A unit that was guilty of a severe crime (such as mutiny) was punished by selecting and executing one-tenth of its soldiers, thereby scaring the remaining nine-tenths into obedience. The word comes from the Latin decem, meaning ‘ten.’ Decimate strayed from its ‘tenth’ meaning and nowadays refers to the act of destroying or hurting something in great numbers,” Merrian-Webster notes.

Wikitory’s list of definitions includes, “To destroy or remove one-tenth of (something)” and “To exact a tithe or other 10%” tax.” One of the definitions listed states “To reduce to one-tenth: to destroy or remove nine-tenths of (something)” but the definition is described as “proscribed,” which means “[s]ome authorities or commentators recommend or warn against the listed usage.”

NPR reported in 2011 that a reader sent a message saying that journalists’ use of the word decimate to mean” ‘completely ruined or destroyed” was incorrect. NPR noted that the reader said decimate “means to kill every tenth person or soldier as a means of mass punishment.”

NPR stated that the reader was “partially correct” and referenced the two definitions of decimate related to “military usage” and “tithe” but also showed that the Oxford English Dictionary “reports that decimate also has come ‘rhetorically or loosely’ to mean, ‘To destroy or remove a large proportion of; to subject to severe loss, slaughter, or mortality.'”

“The NPR journalists aren’t wrong, in other words. But if we decimated the newsroom, we would be sure to get the attention of the remaining 90 percent of the staffers to snap to and speak precisely, with none of this loose usage stuff,” NPR reported.

After Check Your Fact reached out for comment, Time Magazine issued a correction and removed the sentence. (RELATED: Was The USS Dwight D. Eisenhower Struck By Houthi Rebels?)

Correction, June 4…The original version of this story incorrectly described one definition of ‘decimate’ as being “reduce to one-tenth.” It means to reduce by one-tenth. The relevant sentence has been removed,” the correction reads.

Elias Atienza

Senior Reporter
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