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One of our words is in danger

05/24/2013 12:49AM, Published by Brian O, Categories: In Print, Opinion



By Robert T. Brown

Special to the Chester County Press

Another of our words is missing, or if not completely gone, is in danger of disappearing. The word is “assailant,” meaning one who carries out an attack or assault on a person.

It is rapidly being replaced by the neologism “attacker,” which is not recognized as a word by most of  the dictionaries that I have consulted...or perhaps it does not appear in most dictionaries because its meaning is so obvious that it does not need a dictionary discussion of its own.

The verb “assail” and its relatives have a long and honorable history in our language, and should not be included in any dumbing down effort,  if that is what we are witnessing here.

The words assail and assault entered English from Latin at about the same time, the period 1175 to 1250, the time of the Third Crusade, the era of King Richard the Lion Heart of England, and  Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa. The words have about the same meaning, “to attack.”  Related words are “sally,” to carry out an attack from a sheltered position, and “salient,” a forward position of troops, either in the field or in a fixed fortification. All of these words are based on the Latin word “salire,” to leap or to jump, as in “to sally forth.”  This emphasis on leaping and jumping might have something to do with infantry tactics of the period that these words were getting established in what was to become English.  

In spite of  the above examples, these are not necessarily words with a military origin. The leaping fish, or salmon, gets its name from the Latin root which refers to its behavior in returning to its ancestral spawning ground.   And the word that refers to that spawning ground lives on as the modern French sault for the rapids of a river, literally “jumping water.”

Probably the best known example of a river harboring jumping water, at least to citizens of North America, is the Sainte Marie River connecting Lake Superior with Lake Huron. The system of canals by-passing the rapids of the river is known almost universally as the Soo Locks, or Soo Canal. In fact, the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers, responsible for operation and maintenance of the waterway, has as part of its local mailing address the line “Soo Area Office,” even though the  local post office is  Sault Sainte Marie, Michigan 06405.

The spelling “Soo” is an attempt, not too successful, to preserve the original French pronunciation.  Such attempts usually do not work.  For example, the acrobatic or tumbling maneuver known as the somersault, literally “leap over,”  from super “over” and salire “leap” is pronounced as if it were the two English words  “summer” and “salt.” Neither of  these has anything at all to do with the original word.

In spite of superficial similarities and widespread reference to one another as synonyms, “attack” and  “assault”  plus their offspring and relatives are not very closely related. According to The Random  House Dictionary, their origins are separated in both space and time. In time the interval is over many hundreds of years, and  in  space the difference is between  North Germanic and  Latin. This should  provide plenty of  habitat for jumping waters and leaping fish.


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robert t brown


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