Undoing morphophonology

Ian Preston commenting on my “attriting” posting yesterday:

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.

Ah, another back-formation from attrition, with the ‘drop out’ meaning of the first sense of back-formed attrite. The second, accented, syllable of attrite has the vowel /aj/, indicating an analysis in which the accented /ɪ/ of attrition is treated as a lax version of the vowel of the base verb (as in ignition, based on ignite); this bit of morphophonology is “undone” in the process of back-formation. However, the spelling ATTRIT strongly suggests a pronunciation with /ɪ/, taken directly from attrition (as in exhibition, based on exhibit).

The evidence of the dictionaries is not entirely clear, however.

The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (4th ed., 1993) is straightforward on the pronunciations: it has separate entries for transitive attrit (‘wear down in quality or quantity by military attrition’, marked as US colloq., from the mid-20th century), with /ɪ/, and transitive attrite (= attrit, with the same style label and dating as attrit), with /aj/ (in a somewhat different transcription system).

(NSOED also has a ‘wear down by continued friction’ sense of attrite that goes back to the adjective attrite, via the adjective attrited, as in my previous posting.)

But NSOED’s restriction of attrit to the ‘wear down’ sense, as a transitive verb, and in military contexts doesn’t accord with Preston’s report or with the evidence of the web:

One for one means you get one for every one [employee] that attrits out through quit, death or retirement (link) [‘drop out’, intransitive, non-military]

There are also hits for the nouning attrit ‘someone (esp. an employee) who drops out’, and for the related transitive non-military attrit ‘(cause to) drop’:

Real competition attrits [automobile] dealerships that are unprofitable. (link)

It’s likely that attrit will turn out to have much the same range of uses and senses as attrite in my previous posting.

AHD4 has an entry for attrit (but none for attrite), which is similar to NSOED in its restrictions:

[trans.] informal wear down (an opponent or enemy) by sustained action: his defense was designed to attrit us. ▶1950s.

OED3 (June 2007) puts attrit and attrite together (under the spelling attrit), with both pronunciations given. The relevant subentry:

trans. Mil. (chiefly U.S.). To weaken or wear down by means of an unrelenting military offensive; to reduce in size, eliminate, esp. slowly and steadily. Also in extended use.

The cites start in 1917 and go through 2004, and all except this one are military:

1987    S. Vittoz New Deal Labor Policy ii. 43   The number of regular shops declined only marginally..and..contract shops were attrited at a rate of almost 17 percent.

This has PSP attrited, presumably with /aj/, but the next cite has PSP attritted, presumably with /ɪ/.

The evidence so far suggests that attrit and attrite first appeared in military contexts, but now appear in other specialized and technical contexts as well, either by extension from military uses or by fresh back-formations.


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