words of the year

James C. Stalker stalker at MSU.EDU
Sun Nov 23 02:38:21 UTC 2003

Although I can offer no cites, my experience with the debate about the efficacy of
the air and ground arms of the US Army in WWII (and the division into the Army and
Air Force subsequently)  has been focused on whether one can actually win a war in
the air (from a distance, apparently cleanly for the air people--think about Billy
Mitchell dropping boms down ships' stacks, carpet bombing and surigical air strikes,
all with low cost to the air force) or whether one must win the war on the ground
(dirty for all involved, there are no surgical strikes on the ground).  This debate
was prominent again during the Balkans affair. The military resisted committing
ground troups.  On the ground is up close and personal.  In the air (the counter
term) is distinct and impersonal.  I agree with Geoff that the metaphoric step is an
easy one.  Surely there is a military history site that would help with the early
sources of "on the ground" as opposed to "in the air."

Jim Stalker

Geoffrey Nunberg wrote:

> >---------------------- 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).
> >
> >larry
> 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.
> Geoff

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