“Only” Murder

By Maeve Maddox

A reader commenting on “‘Persian’ Is a Lovely Word” wonders about the difference between assassination and murder:

Maybe ‘Farsi’ is a racist word like ‘hashassin’ is. I mean, why use ‘assassin’ when the word is only used for VIP’s? Why are ordinary people only ‘murdered’? Where do we draw the line?

Certainly political speech writers, advertisers and religious leaders know how to choose words for emotional impact, but i have to disagree with the notion that murder is somehow a lesser word to describe the act of taking a person’s life. The word assassination has a specific meaning that has nothing to do with class perceptions.

By “VIP” I assume that the reader means any kind of wealthy celebrity, for example an actor or a star athlete, and not just a corporate executive, senator, or president.

According to this definition, both President McKinley and John Lennon were “VIPs,” but McKinley was assassinated, while Lennon was murdered.

The word assassin derives from an Arabic word.

1531 (in Anglo-L. from c.1237), via Fr. and It., from Arabic hashishiyyin “hashish-users,” pl. of hashishiyy, from hashish (q.v.). A fanatical Ismaili Muslim sect of the time of the Crusades, under leadership of the “Old Man of the Mountains” (translates Arabic shaik-al-jibal, name applied to Hasan ibu-al-Sabbah), with a reputation for murdering opposing leaders after intoxicating themselves by eating hashish. The pl. suffix -in was mistaken in Europe for part of the word (cf. Bedouin). Online Etymology Dictionary

In English the word has retained its political associations. The most usual targets of assassination attempts are presidents, kings and other high-ranking political leaders. The hope of the assassin is to bring about social change on a large scale by eliminating a person perceived to be not just famous, but powerful.

By extension, assassination can apply to a murder committed for ideological reasons. The murder of obscure employees of an abortion clinic could be classed as assassination if the murderer acted from a desire to put a stop to the activities of the clinic.

The connotation that assassin has for English speakers may not translate to other languages. French, for example, has two words for murderer: meurtrier and assassin. As far as I can tell, they are used interchangeably.

Murder is one of the most dreadful and powerful words in the language. The Old English word morðor meant the “secret killing of a person.” Even in a society in which killing was common because of war and the tradition of the blood feud, the word murder was reserved for the most contemptible and horrendous of cowardly acts.

Both assassination and murder refer to the deliberate taking of a life, but to me the word murderer carries a stronger emotional punch than assassin.

More words to describe deaths resulting from other than natural causes:

manslaughter: c.1300, from O.E. mannslæht (Anglian), mannslieht (W.Saxon), from man (q.v.) + slæht, slieht “act of killing.” Etymologically identical with homicide, but in legal use usually distinguished from murder and restricted to “simple homicide.”

homicide: “killing,” c.1230, from O.Fr. homicide, from L. homicidium, from homo “man” + –cidium “act of killing.” The meaning “person who kills” is also from O.Fr., from L. homicida, from -cida “killer.”

execution: c.1360, from O.Fr. execution, from L. executionem agent noun from exequi “follow out,” from ex- “out” + sequi “follow” (see sequel). Sense of “act of putting to death” is from M.E. legal phrases such as don execution of deth “carry out a sentence of death.”

suicide: “deliberate killing of oneself,” 1651, from Mod.L. suicidium “suicide,” from L. sui “of oneself”

Click here to get access to 800+ interactive grammar exercises!


Share


5 Responses to ““Only” Murder”

  • Bob

    The distinction between murder and assassination in the United States seems to have significant cultural roots (which is to say it reflects cultural values) that are at least as important as the linguistic roots. By contrast, in newspaper reports in Mexico, “matar” is the generic term “to kill” and assassination (asesinato) is used to mean murder. “Killer” and “assassin” are used interchangeably whether the victim is an ordinary citizen or a person of high status.

  • Brad K.

    So . . . Assassination is a political tool. Then terrorist assassinate, but the indiscriminate killing of pirates and common thugs is murder. No, wait. When terrorists kill indiscriminately, that is just murder. It is when you intend to directly affect a governing entity that it is assassination, because an influential leader is killed. When killing is done to intimidate masses and only exert general pressure for your goals, then that is indiscriminate and murder.

    James Bond, shooting an ex-girlfriend would be murdering her. But if she were the head of the opposition intelligence organization, and he shot her because of her role against his government, then it would be assassination. Unless James Bond was shooting at a bad guy that just happened to ducked behind the ex-girlfriend and she was shot by mistake. That would be an “Oops!” or manslaughter, on Bond’s paperwork, since her death was due to mishap or negligence, instead of intent. If James Bond had to fill out any paperwork.

    I hope that sounds about right. Thanks.

  • Alain

    Hi, first i’m french, and my english is not the best you can find.

    Meurtrier and assassin are not used interchangeably in french.

    Assassin stand for “murderer of ambush, formed intention, and in treason”, in the old “Dictionnaire de l’Académie Française”.

    In the more recent “trésors de la langue française”:

    “That which kills, which makes a homicide with premeditation or ambush ”

    “Meurtrier” is simply somebody who commit one or more murder

    Thanks for your site,

  • niznee

    can u help me in this? My sister has many toys.Her favorite one is the pink teddy bear.

    One refers to __________.

  • hanan

    Thank you for the clarification. Niznee, one refers to “toy”:)

Leave a comment: