Accost, Assail, Assault, and Attack

By Maeve Maddox

The other day I noticed what I view as a nonstandard use of the verb accost in a news article about a man who “accosted” his wife when he returned home from prison. Because the woman received bruises in the incident, accost seems to me to be the wrong word.

The literal meaning of accost is “to travel along the coast.” The verb was used to describe the practice of drawing up alongside an enemy coast or ship with the intent to invade or to board. The verb developed the meaning, “to approach and speak to a person.” An additional connotation implied that the approach was made in “a hostile or importune manner.” Although assail, from which we get the word assailant, is sometimes offered as a synonym, accost does not usually connote physical contact.

Here are typical examples of the use of accost in the sense of hurling verbal abuse:

Angry Christian Protester Accosts Katy Perry’s Preacher Dad for Raising a “Wicked” Daughter

Anti-war protester accosts Rice at House hearing

Accost is the usual word to describe the approach of a beggar or a prostitute:

New Yorkers are used to being accosted by beggars.

He read the law pertaining to soliciting, accosting, or inviting to commit prostitution or an immoral act.

The Variety writer responsible for the following headline exhibited a sense of humor by applying the act of accosting to the police:

“Django Unchained’ Actress Says She Was Accosted By Police After Mistaken for Prostitute

Accost in the sense of “to speak to someone in a determined or aggressive manner” is especially frequent in reviews and summaries of the television drama The Good Wife:

Alicia accosts Cary and demands to know if he’s “organizing something.”  “No,” he lies, [saying that] he and the fourth years trust the partners will eventually honor their commitments.

Dubeck accosts Peter’s ethics advisor, Marilyn Garbanza, on the street and tries to convince her to cooperate with his election fraud investigation. 

Diane accosts Alicia as she exits the elevator in the Lockhart/Gardner lobby. “Okay. How’d it go?”

Both assail and assault can be used to mean “to make a violent hostile attack by physical means.” In current usage, assault retains this meaning, but assail seems to have become more common in figurative use to describe “a verbal attack with hostile, opprobrious, or bitter words”:

Citizens’ group assails rules targeting farm sales

German man whose wife left him assails Kasper proposal in new book

Nashville Chief Assails Judge [for] Releasing Man Who Beat His Girlfriend

When the act being described is a physical attempt to injure or kill, the most common verb by far is attack:

Police were forced to draw their guns this morning after a man attacked two pedestrians with meat cleavers in Sai Ying Pun.

Chelsea fans attacked by masked thugs in Kiev

A settlement was attacked in the early morning hours.

Both assail and assault derive ultimately from a Latin verb meaning “to spring” or “to leap.” At one time, assail could mean “to leap on” or “to mount,” as in the mating of animals. Shakespeare plays on this meaning of assail, as well as on the earlier, nautical meaning of accost, in the scene in Twelfth Night (1601) in which Sir Toby urges Sir Andrew to offer his attentions to the attractive maid Maria.

Sir Andrew, severely vocabulary-challenged, at first thinks that Accost is the woman’s name. When Toby corrects him, Andrew, who apparently does know at least one meaning of the word assail, is mortified:

Sir Toby: Accost, Sir Andrew, accost.
Sir Andrew: What’s that?
Sir Toby: My niece’s chambermaid.
Sir Andrew: Good Mistress Accost, I desire better acquaintance.
Sir Toby: You mistake, knight; ‘accost’ is ‘front her, board her, woo her, assail her.”
Sir Andrew: By my troth, I would not undertake her in this company. Is that the meaning of ‘accost’?

Use assault or attack when the intended meaning is physical aggression. Save accost to mean approach, confront, or importune.

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