Degrade

By Maeve Maddox

A reader has asked for a discussion of the verb degrade in the context of the latest fashionable phrase, “degrade and destroy.”

It seems to be popping up everywhere. What would be a suitable replacement to mean, ‘attack until it is destroyed’?

The phrase originated in the announcement that the US military plans to “degrade and destroy” the so-called Islamic State (ISIL).

Like all catchy military coinages, such as “shock and awe,” the phrase has quickly caught on in other contexts:

Can the U.S. Army Degrade and Destroy Ebola?

[Rape] is used as a weapon to defile, degrade and destroy a survivor’s will and control over her/his own body.

TV programmers have a basic, brutal philosophy: If you can help your lineup, great; but you must do everything in your power to degrade and destroy the competition.

The new cliché muddles the meaning of degrade as applied to people with degrade as applied to objects.

As applied to human beings, the usual meanings of degrade are “to reduce in rank” or “to humiliate.” The verb derives from Latin degradare, “to lower in rank.” Here are examples of conventional usage:

To lower in rank
Following French military custom of the time Dreyfus was formally degraded by having the rank insignia, buttons and braid cut from his uniform and his sword broken,

Dempsey publicly degraded and reprimanded Dooley, and Dooley received a negative Officer Evaluation Report.

Three bishops were degraded and banished for adverse opinions.

To humiliate
A lawyer is forbidden to ask any question intended to degrade a witness or other person.

Workplace bullying refers to repeated, unreasonable actions of individuals intended to intimidate, degrade, humiliate, or undermine others.

Staff must never act in ways intended to shame, humiliate, belittle or degrade children.

Scientific uses of degrade relate to things, not people:

degrade (Geology): to wear down rocks, strata, cliffs, etc. by surface abrasion or disintegration.

degrade (Biology): to reduce to a lower and less complex organic type.

degrade (Physics): to reduce energy to a form less capable of transformation.

In referring to people, even bad people, better choices are available to convey the idea of weakening an enemy before wiping them out. Here are a few:

cripple
debilitate
disable
enfeeble
exhaust
impair
incapacitate
undermine

Unless one is writing about habitat, it’s probably best to avoid the expression “degrade and destroy.”

Related post: Awe and Awesome

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2 Responses to “Degrade”

  • Barb Dennis

    Maeve, I question the following when you leave a sentence hanging as excerpted below:

    To lower in rank
    Following French military custom of the time Dreyfus was formally degraded by having the rank insignia, buttons and braid cut from his uniform and his sword broken,

    I was taught not to leave a sentence with a comma. Is it a break in thought? Yet, the following paragraph does not continue on with the previous one. Or, was it just what I call a nuisance error meaning to have been a period instead of a comma.

    Is this a difference between British English and American English?

  • Maeve

    Barb,
    It’s careless editing on my part. Here’s the complete sentence:
    Following French military custom of the time Dreyfus was formally degraded by having the rank insignia, buttons and braid cut from his uniform and his sword broken, in the courtyard of the Ecole Militaire before silent ranks of soldiers while a large crowd of onlookers shouted abuse from behind railings.

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