Testimony before Congress from Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, as reported in Reuters on March 31:

Mullen testified alongside [U.S. Defense Secretary Robert] Gates that coalition strikes had taken a toll on Gaddafi’s overall forces, but signaled a long struggle ahead.

“We have actually fairly seriously degraded his military capabilities … We’ve attrited his overall forces at about the 20- to 25-percent level,” Mullen said.

“That does not mean he’s about to break from a military standpoint, because that’s not the case.”

(Link from Peter Salus, who was dubious about attrited, on Facebook.)

There’s a fairly long and complex history here. It starts with the adjective attrite ‘worn or ground down by friction’, taken from Latin but now obsolete; the OED2 cites are from 1654 and 1667 (Paradise Lost).

Then comes the derived adjective in -ed, attrited ‘worn down by continued friction’ (first cite in 1761 — Tristram Shandy). OED2 says this about the -ed in question:

The suffix was (chiefly in 15th, 16th, and 17th c.) added to adapted forms of Latin pples., the intention being to assimilate these words in form to the native words which they resembled in function; e.g. acquisited, situated, versed (sine). Similarly, the ppl. adjs. in -ate, < Latin -ātus, common in mod. scientific nomenclature, have usually parallel forms in -ated, without difference in meaning; e.g. bipinnate(d), dentate(d).

At some point, the noun attrition served as the basis for a back-formed verb attrite (roughly) ‘drop out, fail (at a job, at military training, at school, etc.)’

I work in journalism, where the balance between men and women is actually weighted toward women at the entry level. But women attrite at a faster rate for reasons that have nothing to do with the industry, which leaves more men in senior positions. Those women who don’t attrite have the ability to climb just as fast and far as men in the media world. (link)

For those of you haven’t heard the word, here it is: If you attrite from flight school (including API through possibly as far as the FRS) whether it be DOR, NPQ or flunked out, you will be seperated from the Navy. This goes now for all OCS, ROTC and Academy grads! You will be gone from the Navy is less than 6 months. For now there are no redesignations and even those who have in the past couple of years made it to GENAV, are being seperated. SO DON’T ATTRITE! (link) [note the trans. as well as intr. uses]

Let’s take a critical business decision of retaining just the high-value customers (assuming that some will attrite any way). If we knew which customers of ours were likely to quit to a competitor, and which of these are really worth keeping, we could intervene in a timely manner and take steps to retain them. (link)

and a back-formed verb attrite ‘wear down, diminish’ (both trans. and intr.):

The contact lenses may attrite the cornea and this will sometimes cause the serious result like the falling off of the epithelia corneal or the perforation. (link)

There is, however, little direct evidence that the degree to which a language system will attrite is dependent on the amount to which the language is being used in everyday life. Two early studies report that those subjects who used their L1 on an extremely infrequent basis showed more attrition over time (de Bot, Gommans & Rossing 1991 and Köpke 1999). On the other hand, there is also some evidence for a negative correlation, suggesting that the attriters who used their L1 on a daily basis actually performed worse on some tasks (Jaspaert & Kroon 1989). (link) [note attriters ‘those who attrite’]

The Taliban will attrite our forces slowly by ambush, and continue their business of subverting the local populace unchecked. (link)

However, as has been demonstrated, the use of special forces and human intelligence has had tremendous success and if we stay on the attack, we will attrite away, day by day, week by week, month by month, the infrastructure of both the Taliban and al Qaeda and not expose tens of thousand of our troops to injury and death. (link)

plus the quote from Adm. Mullen above, with transitive attrite in the PSP.

(Neither of the back-formed verbs has yet made it into the OED.)

Prenominal attrited in examples like the following could be the PSP of the back-formed attrite ‘wear down, diminish’, or conceivably be a continuation of the much older adjective attrited:

Full mouth rehabilitation of severely attrited dentition. A case report. (link)

Vibrational and magnetic properties of mechanically attrited Ni3Fe nanocrystals (link)

In any case, all these recent uses are in technical contexts: scientific, medical, business, and military contexts, specifically. Attrite hasn’t made it out into general use.

As for Adm. Mullen, he’s just talking like a military man, but maybe in the context of Congressional testimony something less specialized and technical would have been more effective; he could have repeated degraded or used reduced, for example.






2 Responses to “Attriting”

  1. Peter H. Salus Says:

    It’s worth noting that the DoD press release of 4 April 2011 employs “degraded.”

  2. Ian Preston Says:

    I have come across “attrit” quite often in statistical contexts, usually spelt without a final “e”, where it is used intransitively to denote what a respondent does who drops out of a longitudinal sample.

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