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shameless pleading

Assassinate

He’s jake, Jim.

Dear Word Detective: I read in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s excellent book, “Team of Rivals,” that after the attack on Lincoln and Secretary of State William Seward, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton cabled individuals to tell them that Secretary Seward and his son had been “assassinated” and were gravely hurt. He obviously knew they were not yet dead, so my question is: Did Stanton misuse the word “assassinate,” or have I been wrong all my life in assuming it inherently means the victim has died? — Jeff Driggs.

Well, heck, English is a big language. I’m sure there’s room for both you and Stanton to be right. Incidentally, I had to fire up the old Wikipedia to refresh my memory of what I learned in school about the events of that fateful night. Strictly speaking, we should speak of the “attacks,” plural, since Seward and his son were attacked in Seward’s home by one of John Wilkes Booth’s co-conspirators on the same night in 1865 that Lincoln was shot at Ford’s Theater. Both Sewards were severely injured, but both survived.

“Assassin,” the noun on which the verb “assassinate” is formed, is one of those words with a story so “colorful” that it turns up sooner or later in nearly every printed venue. I’d be amazed if there weren’t a fortune cookie out there somewhere containing a short-form etymology of “assassin.” Part of the charm of the story for the average Joe is the fact that it involves drugs, thus serving up a frisson of the forbidden. The other hook, unfortunately, is that it plays into an atavistic but depressingly persistent stereotype of the Middle East.

The root of “assassin” is the Arabic word “hashishiyyin” (or “hashshashin”) meaning “hashish eaters,” but also the name of an Ismaili Muslim sect active at the time of the Crusades. Members of this sect were said to use hashish or other hemp products to steel their nerves before attacking the enemy, especially on missions to kill rulers or leaders who opposed the sect. There has long been, however, considerable debate in the scholarly community as to how much of this is true and how much is a Western invention. The name “Hashsashin” itself, in fact, may only be a reference to Hassan ibn al-Sabbah, leader of the sect.

Whatever the truth, the word “assassin” traveled through Europe, arriving in English in the 16th century with the meaning of “one who murders a public official or other politically important person, usually for political motives.” The verb “to assassinate” appeared in English shortly after the noun, with the meaning of “to kill with treacherous violence” (“Brutus and Cassius … conspired to assassinate him,” 1618), and with the same requirement that the target had to be a political or otherwise powerful figure.

But while the core definition of “assassinate” since it first appeared in English has been “to kill,” implying that the victim ends up, y’know, actually dead, there was, for a time, some wiggle room in the word. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) lists a secondary definition of “assassinate” as meaning “to endeavor to kill by treacherous violence; to attack by an assassin,” and lists two citations from printed sources, one from 1683 (“William of Orange was twice Assassinated, and lost his Life the Second time”) and the other from 1706. The OED labels this usage as now “obsolete,” which is certainly is. But for at least a few centuries, including in Stanton’s day, it was apparently possible to survive one’s own assassination, and Seward did.

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