English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

Besides sports in which an attacker is an offensive player, is there any difference between assailant and attacker?

a person who attacks somebody

I guess attacker can also be used for animals but not assailant. Is there anything else or are they fully interchangeable when describing a person who physically attacks somebody else?

Can both words also be used when talking about psychological attacks, like insulting, bullying, etc?

share|improve this question
I think you meant psychological. I edited. – Daniel Jul 13 '12 at 21:51
Did you consult a dictionary? You seem to have left that part out of your research. – Daniel Jul 13 '12 at 21:53
@Danielδ Thanks for edit. That's what I meant. .. And sure I checked a dictionary but both just said: "A person who attacks somebody" – Em1 Jul 13 '12 at 22:14
For the sake of completeness I added the notes of my favorite dictionary, but actually it should be obvious that I did some research otherwise I would had forgotten sports and also wasn't aware that only attacker can be used for animals (at least that's what my research told me, still may be wrong)... – Em1 Jul 13 '12 at 22:26

Yes, the two words are used interchangeably, especially when referring to the act of physically setting upon a person.

To trace the difference between them, we take a look at their Verbs:

"Assail" means:

to attack a person violently to cause hurt to them. The attack may be physical or verbal. When you assail a person (verbally), you abuse them. Assailing consists in hitting a person very hard and repeatedly.

"Attack" means:

to set upon with violence and applies to offensive action, especially to the onset of planned aggression. It also means to criticize strongly in a hostile manner.

share|improve this answer

Assailant comes from the same root as assault, which has connotations beyond just attack. At one time, newspapers were not allowed to use the word sexual, which led to overuse of assault in reporting rapes. There is an alleged news story (much too good to check) along the lines of 'The woman was grabbed from behind, overpowered, and left bleeding and unconscious. She was fortunate not to have been assaulted.'

share|improve this answer
Interesting hint. I conjecture that assailant is still preferred when talking about sexual attacks rather than attacker? – Em1 Jul 13 '12 at 22:19

OED definitions suggest the two are synonymous. However, attacker is nearly five times as frequent in the British National Corpus and nearly twice as frequent in the Corpus of Contemporary American English. A corpus search might uncover differences of use, perhaps showing, for example, that assailant was used more in legal contexts.

share|improve this answer

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.