Skip to main content

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.



robert t brown


You might also like

Dinniman announces recycling grant for Franklin Township

State Senator Andy Dinniman announced that Franklin Township will receive $3,073 in state funding to support its recycling efforts.

  • Antique Appraisal Fair

    09/02/2014
    09:00am — 02:00pm

    We will have appraisers at the event to appraise your antique or vintage items Proceeds from thi...


  • Kennett Flash schedule

    09/02/2014
    08:00pm

    The following acts are scheduled to perform at the Kennett Flash (101 Sycamore Alley, Kennett Squ...


  • Antique Appraisal Fair

    09/03/2014
    09:00am — 02:00pm

    We will have appraisers at the event to appraise your antique or vintage items Proceeds from thi...


  • Zen Group Startup

    09/03/2014
    05:00pm — 06:00pm

    Find out for yourself why people have respected Zen for thousands of years. One hour introductio...


  • Kennett Flash schedule

    09/03/2014
    08:00pm

    The following acts are scheduled to perform at the Kennett Flash (101 Sycamore Alley, Kennett Squ...


  • Antique Appraisal Fair

    09/04/2014
    09:00am — 02:00pm

    We will have appraisers at the event to appraise your antique or vintage items Proceeds from thi...


  • Kennett Flash schedule

    09/04/2014
    08:00pm

    The following acts are scheduled to perform at the Kennett Flash (101 Sycamore Alley, Kennett Squ...


  • Antique Appraisal Fair

    09/05/2014
    09:00am — 02:00pm

    We will have appraisers at the event to appraise your antique or vintage items Proceeds from thi...


  • SCCCC Business & Family Friendly Event

    09/05/2014
    04:00pm — 08:00pm

    Please visit www.scccc.com for more information.


  • "Trees" Art Exhibit and Reception

    09/05/2014
    06:00pm — 09:00pm

    Join us for the First Friday Art Stroll in Kennett Square, September 5th, 6-9 pm, watch the Mushr...


  • "Trees" Art Exhibit and Reception

    09/05/2014
    06:00pm — 09:00pm

    Join us for the First Friday Art Stroll in Kennett Square, September 5th, 6-9 pm, watch the Mushr...


  • "Trees" Art Exhibit and Reception

    09/05/2014
    06:00pm — 09:00pm

    Join us for the First Friday Art Stroll in Kennett Square, September 5th, 6-9 pm, watch the Mushr...


  • MUSHROOM FESTIVAL

    09/05/2014
    06:00pm

    For 28 years the Festival stretches more than half a mile and features culinary events, growing e...


  • Kennett Flash schedule

    09/05/2014
    08:00pm

    The following acts are scheduled to perform at the Kennett Flash (101 Sycamore Alley, Kennett Squ...


  • Antique Appraisal Fair

    09/06/2014
    09:00am — 02:00pm

    We will have appraisers at the event to appraise your antique or vintage items Proceeds from thi...


  • Kennett Flash schedule

    09/06/2014
    08:00pm

    The following acts are scheduled to perform at the Kennett Flash (101 Sycamore Alley, Kennett Squ...


  • Antique Appraisal Fair

    09/07/2014
    09:00am — 02:00pm

    We will have appraisers at the event to appraise your antique or vintage items Proceeds from thi...


  • Grandparents Day

    09/07/2014
    10:00am — 05:30pm

    Grandmothers, bubbies*, and nanas! Grandfathers, zadies*, and pops! Grab your grandkids for a day...


  • Taste Kennett Food Tours

    09/07/2014
    01:00pm — 04:00pm

    Taste Kennett Food Tours, creators of memorable, unique and fun food experiences, offer three-hou...


  • Kennett Flash schedule

    09/07/2014
    08:00pm

    The following acts are scheduled to perform at the Kennett Flash (101 Sycamore Alley, Kennett Squ...


  • Antique Appraisal Fair

    09/01/2014
    09:00am — 02:00pm

    We will have appraisers at the event to appraise your antique or vintage items Proceeds from thi...


  • Come on out for our opening UPICK Apple Adventure! We will offer Royal Gala, the ever so popular...


  • Kennett Flash schedule

    09/01/2014
    08:00pm

    The following acts are scheduled to perform at the Kennett Flash (101 Sycamore Alley, Kennett Squ...


  • Antique Appraisal Fair

    09/02/2014
    09:00am — 02:00pm

    We will have appraisers at the event to appraise your antique or vintage items Proceeds from thi...


  • Kennett Flash schedule

    09/02/2014
    08:00pm

    The following acts are scheduled to perform at the Kennett Flash (101 Sycamore Alley, Kennett Squ...


  • Antique Appraisal Fair

    09/03/2014
    09:00am — 02:00pm

    We will have appraisers at the event to appraise your antique or vintage items Proceeds from thi...


  • Zen Group Startup

    09/03/2014
    05:00pm — 06:00pm

    Find out for yourself why people have respected Zen for thousands of years. One hour introductio...


  • Kennett Flash schedule

    09/03/2014
    08:00pm

    The following acts are scheduled to perform at the Kennett Flash (101 Sycamore Alley, Kennett Squ...


Chester County High School Sports