Boots on the Ground
Yesterday I heard a radio talk show host twice mention the importance of having “boots on the ground” in the Middle East. Or maybe it was important to not have boots on the ground. I don’t remember. It doesn’t matter. What’s important here is the expression “boots on the ground.”
You know what it means, right? It refers to soldiers prepared for land battle. It is used to distinguish actual military invasion from, say, air or missile attacks. It’s a vivid and clear way of saying it, too. I don’t remember anyone ever having to explain what is meant by it. Context and the word picture it evokes leave no doubt. Still, it’s a fascinating expression worth a closer look:
“Boots on the ground” is an idiom. That means it’s a manner of speaking that defies literal translation. The closer you look at an idiom, the less sense it makes. Why do we say someone is “off his rocker” or “out to lunch” or “in for a rude awakening”? Truth is, these idiomatic expressions have interesting stories, but you don’t need to know the stories to understand the expressions. An idiom is “just the way you say it.”
Figure of Speech
A figure of speech, or figurative language, is any expression not meant to be taken literally. “I’ve told you this a million times,” is hyperbole — intentional exaggeration for effect. The point is clear and only children imagine you actually said the words precisely one million times. “Boots on the ground” is both an idiom and a figure of speech. When we use it we don’t literally mean we should ship over a bunch of boots.
Metonymy is a particular kind of figure of speech in which something is referred to indirectly using another word that is closely associated with it. For example, if you say something like “the prince coveted the crown” you probably mean that he really coveted the kingship. It’s what the crown represents that matters in this sentence. The expression “boots on the ground” is like that. It’s clear that the one using the expression means soldiers — the people wearing the boots — not just empty footwear.
Synecdoche is another kind of figure of speech closely related to metonymy. Some consider it a sub-class of metonymy. Synecdoche is when part of something is used to represent the whole thing. When we talk about “talking heads” on the TV news, “hungry mouths to feed,” or “helping hands,” we are using particular body parts to represent whole people. Boots are part of a soldier’s uniform, so “boots on the ground” also qualifies as synecdoche.
You can argue that “boots on the ground” is also a euphemism — a mild expression used in place of something harsher or potentially offensive. We use euphemisms like “went home” or “passed away” to talk about dying, and “use the restroom” for, well, you get the idea. “Boots on the ground” is certainly milder than “invading army” or “military occupation” and in this sense it is also a euphemistic expression.
So, I guess that makes “boots on the ground” a kind of eupho-metonymous idio-synecdoche. Or is it an idiometonymoeuphosynecdoche…of speech? Something like that.
Of course, you don’t have to know anything about idioms, metonymy, synecdoche, or euphemism to completely understand an expression like “boots on the ground.” That’s the beauty of it. It’s a rich and vibrant way of speaking that makes sense without requiring any conscious effort. But, for me at least, the more I think about it, the more I like it.
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