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attrit

verb

1. [transitive] to destroy a military enemy by using large amounts of troops or firepower

2. [intransitive] to reduce something in size, number or strength

'A swift change in tactical approach would appear necessary because Israel believes its policy of attritting hardcore militants is beginning to work.'

Frontline Magazine August 2001

In the context of media coverage of the recent war in Iraq, the transitive verb attrit has somehow been rediscovered, as commanders in the field and armchair generals started talking about how British and US forces would attrit Saddam Hussein's forces. An April 2003 article in The Guardian dismissed the verb as non-existent, saying that it was a product of the imaginations of NATO generals.

the verb is usually associated with military contexts of wearing down enemy troops and
firepower

In fact, the verb was already recorded in various dictionaries, including the 1995 edition of the Collins English Dictionary, the New Oxford Dictionary of English (1998) and the North American edition of the Encarta® World English Dictionary, all of these works acknowledging it as a valid derivative of the noun attrition. The verb is usually associated with military contexts of wearing down enemy troops and firepower, but can also be used more generally to describe the activity of reducing something in amount or strength.

A more detailed examination of use also reveals a subsense which isn't formally documented – an intransitive reading which is often associated with ceasing to be involved in something, especially a course of training, for example:

'We see one-third of the military attritting before they ever get through their training.'

House of Representatives, Committee on Armed Services 26th February 1999

Though mainly used in American English, this sense isn't confined to military contexts, and often occurs with the preposition from as in '50 per cent of students attritted from the programme'. It has also spawned a noun derivative: individuals who withdraw from involvement in something are often referred to as attrits.

Background – attrit

The verb attrit dates back to the 1950s. It is a derivative of the noun attrition, which is defined in the Macmillan English Dictionary as 'the process of making an enemy physically and mentally weaker by continuously attacking them'.

Attrit was developed from attrition by what linguists describe as 'back-formation'. Back-formation refers to the process of deriving a shorter word from a longer word by deleting a supposed affix from a word which is already present in the language. So, for example, edit was derived from editor, rather than the other way round, and similarly attrit from attrition. This process of word formation deviates from expected derivational patterns since it shortens words rather than lengthens them. There is more information about back-formation in this article in MED Magazine.

by Kerry Maxwell, author of Brave New Words

This article was first published on 28th November 2003.

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