Publication / DecodeDC/ Scripps
September 30, 2014
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‘Boots on the ground’ is a favorite phrase in the ISIS debate

Ever wonder where it came from?

WASHINGTON, D.C. – A regular feature that decodes popular political phrases and words.

Where we’re hearing it

As U.S. leaders debate how involved the country should get in the fight against ISIS in Syria and Iraq, the phrase “boots on the ground” is getting tossed around a lot. The president uses it. Members of Congress use it. Generals use it. It seems like just about everybody in Washington is using it.

“Boots on the ground” has become as common as the word “troops,” but the former wasn’t heard much until just after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. It also popped up a lot during the 2007 surge in Iraq.

The term refers, of course, to soldiers actually being sent into a war zone to fight on the ground. So far President Obama has promised no U.S. ground combat troops in Syria or Iraq, and vows to fight ISIS through coalition airstrikes. Ground troops from a coalition country is a different matter.

Where we’ve heard it

The official definition for the phrase is:

“The ground forces actually fighting in a war or conflict, rather than troops not engaged or other military actions such as air strikes.”

The term apparently stems from Marine lingo in the 1940s. Back then inductees were called “boots” and that is where the term “boot camp” comes from.

One of the oldest uses of “boots on the ground” in a news story comes from a 1980 Christian Science Monitor article, according to a 2008 article by William Safire at the New York Times. (It’s unlikely that was the first time the phrase was used by the news media, but most digital records only date back that far.)

Anyway, Safire found that:

“During the Iranian hostage crisis, plans for a rescue operation were made in the Carter administration, and there were worries that the Soviet Union would intervene. Many American strategists now argue that even light, token U.S. land forces — ‘getting U.S. combat boots on the ground’ — as the four-star general Volney Warner put it — would signal to an enemy that the U.S …  can only be dislodged at the risk of war.”

The phrase quickly usurped the previous expression “infantry in the field.”

Katherine Connor Martin, head of the U.S. dictionaries at the Oxford University Press, told DecodeDC the term started getting its footing (pun intended) in the late 1990s during the Clinton administration.

 “The picture painted by evidence on Nexis suggests that 1997 may have been a significant turning point,” she said. “The phrase was used by military personnel in congressional briefings and then seems to have been picked up by politicians, who were then quoted in the media.”

But it was Sept. 11, 2001, that made the term mainstream. A Google Headline search shows you how the term grew from 2004 to current day.

The use of the phrase hit its highest point as the U.S. started pulling soldiers out of Iraq and Afghanistan following 2010. The term also started to be used to describe more than just soldiers placed in war zones. In one article, “boots on the ground” was used to describe emergency electricity workers following a nor’easter storm, but that usage is an exception to the usual combat reference.

What does it mean today?

Today, writers wonder if the phrase has lost some of its luster. “Boots on the ground” was a great term for the strong picture it painted—dusty solider boots undertaking dangerous work at ground zero of a war zone.

Now, some say it’s been overused. A reporter at the Chicago Tribune added the term to its “cliché watch” last year. But if Google trends is any indicator, it seems that the term is just hitting its stride—and perhaps until the wars the U.S. engages in start to die down—the phrase will be sticking around.

Rosa Kim contributed to this report.