On the ground

The Phrase FreakThe Phrase Freak is all about examining the phrases that we hear on a regular basis through the media, but somehow never question. “On the ground” is one such construction that make me mental.

My theory is this dates back to the first Gulf War, when anchors started asking reporters about the state of affairs “on the ground”. The reason they did this was because so much of that first war — and the journalism around it — was about the air war. Even back then, I’m not sure the phrase made a lot of sense, but I accepted it, because there was really little information about what said air war was doing to people “on the ground”. Now, I regret not having stepped in sooner with a big stick of shame-whammy.

Flash forward twenty years, and still, anchors and reporters use this phrase, but now it is totally disconnected from its original context. Anchors regularly ask about the state of things “on the ground”. Except for the occasional airline hijacking and submarine accident, the vast majority of news stories actually take place on the ground, to ask about the ground specifically is kind of redundant, if not outright silly.

On the ground -- pic of sidewalkJust once I’d like to hear a reporter say, “well Bill, there are a few ants milling around what appears to be a crumb of bread … no, no strike that, it’s a piece of donut. Next to this frenzied activity, I can see a few dead leaves and Oh My God — there is a crack in the sidewalk! We can’t tell if this crack is growing or the result of some kind of seismic activity, but we’ll check into it for you Bill.”

Then maybe it would stop.

Freak level on this phrase: 8 gobsmacks out of 10.
8 gobsmacks out of 10

Alltop is an aerial war aggregator. Sidewalk photo by Meganne Soh. Originally published, January 2006. (Obviously, not very effective at stopping this linguistic excrescence.)

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8 Responses to On the ground

  1. wonderdog January 11, 2006 at 10:22 am #

    Actually, I’m pretty sure it predates the Gulf War, and comes from military jargon. It’s not related to air war vs. ground war, but rather means “at the location where things will happen.”

    It originates from the fact that military units must deal with the ground — the shape of the countours, lines of sight, cover, concealment. You can plan from a map, but you have to confirm your plans “on the ground” itself. This then passes into general military slang: “Warrant Bloggins says the boats are fully kitted at Borden, but we’ll see when we get on the ground.” (Warrant Officer Bloggins says our vehicles will be fully equipped when we arrive at CFB Borden. We’ll see when we get there.)

    From here, it passes to Scud Studs during the Gulf War.

  2. Mark A. Rayner January 11, 2006 at 10:33 am #

    Ah, well, that’s when I picked up on it, I guess. Still doesn’t change the essential point — it’s kind of silly to use in non-military situations where you don’t need to differentiate contours, air/ground, ground/water, etc. m.

  3. reverend gisher January 11, 2006 at 11:41 pm #

    funny how on the same day, we are both carping about geraldo.

    3 invalid codes… oh goody, this one looks easy… let’s see…

  4. Patrick Smith January 18, 2006 at 2:03 pm #

    I though I was the only one who has to cover his ears every time “on the ground” is muttered by a talk-show host or newscaster. I truly despise the expression. Mark is right, it’s totally disconnected from its intended context — and just plain *annoying.*


  5. just2manywords June 7, 2006 at 8:49 am #

    These things are just linguistic memes and the underlying meaning is of little importance. I notice your use of “on a regular basis” instead of “regularly”. The use of whole sentances without any thought makes life easier until used in public broadcasts at which point it can have a “chilling effect”, everyone catches it and theres an immune reaction.

  6. Phil Caracena June 13, 2006 at 1:38 am #

    At last I found a few people who also have trouble with “on the ground”. I was beginning to think I was the only one and I thought maybe it was because our President uses the meaningless phrase so much. Apparently it is meant to denote authenticity and “officiality” when none is due. Without the phrase, “What’s the situation on the ground?” would become a much too casual “how’s it going there?” and “Withdrawal of our troops depends on the situation on the ground” would become a blatantly arrogant “Withdrawal of our troops depends on what we decide to do later on.” I, for one, will continue to shudder whenever the phrase is used – unless the situation on the ground calls for a strategic reassessment of my position.


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