words of the year

Geoffrey Nunberg nunberg at CSLI.STANFORD.EDU
Sat Nov 22 23:17:08 UTC 2003

>---------------------- Information from the mail header
>Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
>Poster:       Laurence Horn <laurence.horn at YALE.EDU>
>Subject:      Re: words of the year
>At 1:12 PM -0800 11/22/03, Geoffrey Nunberg wrote:
>>>Was the 1948 citation a literal usage or figurative?
>  >It's literal, though there's an idiomatic or specialized character to
>  >this use of "ground" (i.e., as opposed to air). The OED gives 'ground
>>attack' from 1917. It gives 'ground troops" from 1941 but the NYT has
>>this in a 1918 article about Billy Mitchell.
>>The German army immediately grasped this new weapon [i.e., Russia's
>>demonstration in 1936 of the mass tactical deployment of parachute
>>units] and exended its scope, utilizing gliders... as well as
>>parachutes and landed-transports for placing troops on the ground.
>>"Past Airborne Employment," by James A. Bassett. Military Affairs,
>>Vol. 12, No.4. (Winter, 1948)
>--which is quite distinct from the use of "on the ground" noted by
>Sally Donlon or earlier by me (as in "the facts on the ground" for
>the facts in the actual situation vs. the ones bruited or projected
>by the think tanks or bureaucrats).

Well, I think the new use follows pretty directly from a distinction
between air and ground surveillance.

In the Vietnam period, "on-the-ground" was used as an attributive
modifier to refer to reports or intelligence that came from close to
the immediate scene of action.  A NYT editorial on the potential
escalation of the Vietnam War from 11/25/64 says: "And Ambassador
Taylor, who will bring an on-the-ground report from Saigon next week,
has talked publicly of bombing both Vietcong infiltration routes in
Laos and 'training and staging areas in North Vietnam itself.'"  And
a letter to the NYT in 11/26/85 begins: "It is only too obvious, from
John LeBoutillier's assertion that American prisoners of war are
still alive in Southeast Asia..., that the former Congressman has no
on-the-ground sources in that area. I made a four-month-long walk
down the Mekong River in 1983..."

 From there it seems a very short step to applying the phrase to
people, sources, etc. with a first-hand, close-up knowledge of
events, as opposed to those who view events from afar or abstractly
(as, e.g., from the air). I haven't been able to find any citations
for "on the ground" as an attributive modifier from before the
Vietnam period, but it could certainly go back further than that.


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