Undermining the army

(With a little bit about language.)

Charles M. Blow, “My Very Own Captain America”, op-ed piece in the NYT yesterday, about the 92nd Infantry Division (the “Buffalo Soldiers”), an all-black unit during World War II:

My grandfather, Fred D. Rhodes, was one of those soldiers.

The division was activated late in the war, more out of acquiescence to black leaders than the desire of white policy makers in the war department who doubted the battle worthiness of black soldiers. It was considered to be an experiment, one that the writer of the department’s recommendation to re-establish it would later describe as “programmed to fail from the inception.”

For one, as the historian Daniel K. Gibran has documented, the soldiers were placed under the command of a known racist who questioned their “moral attitude toward battle,” “mental toughness” and “trustworthiness,” and who remained a military segregationist until the day he died. In 1959, the commander commented in a study: “It is absurd to contend that the characteristics demonstrated by the Negroes” will not “undermine and deteriorate the white army unit into which the Negro is integrated.”

The Buffalo Soldiers showed great toughness and character, though the Army did not fully recognize them for it. And this history has been effaced in the new movie Captain America, where a fictitious integrated unit fights in Europe at the end of the war. Read Blow’s moving column.

Two observations. The big one, about the stunning open racism of the unit’s commander, which has obvious parallels in the open homophobia of some supporters of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (and, earlier, the open misogyny of some who resisted the integration of women into the armed services). The rhetoric of insufficient toughness and undermining unit effectiveness and cohesion endures.

Then the small one, about the transitive verb deteriorate ’cause to deteriorate’ in the quote from the commander. This will strike some as an unwelcome causativization. Certainly, it’s true that transitive deteriorate is rare (in both British and American English) — to the point where it seems that only the larger dictionaries list it at all — but it is attested. Two examples of many:

“7 Common Things That Rapidly Deteriorate Your Vision” (link)

USING ONLY WATER-BASED LUBRICANTS to lubricate the orifice entry and internal canal of the masturbation sleeve. Oil or silicone-based lubricants may deteriorate the Ultra Skin sleeve. (link)

The OED tells an interesting story about deteriorate. According to OED2, the transitive verb came first (late 16th and early 17th centuries), with the intransitive appearing in the mid-18th century. Cites for both continue through the 19th century (though the compilers didn’t add any 20th-century cites for either when OED2 was assembled). Here are some cites for the transitive from respectable authors:

1784    W. Cowper Let. 10 Feb. (1981) II. 213   A long line of grandsires, who from generation to generation have been employed in deteriorating the breed.

1813    Duke of Wellington Dispatches (1838) X. 380   Maintained by means‥which will deteriorate the discipline of the troops.

1847    C. G. Addison Treat. Law Contracts (1883) ii. iii. §2 603   To deteriorate the value of the property.

1879    M. Arnold G. Sand in Mixed Ess. 343   Equality, as its reign proceeded, had not deteriorated but improved them.

Apparently the use of the transitive declined at some point, but did not disappear, either by survival from earlier times or by fresh causativization of the intransitive (or, most likely, both).

One Response to “Undermining the army”

  1. Annals of causativization « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] Deteriorate. On this blog, here. […]

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