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Query triggered by this Globe and Mail article:

Headline: Malala Yousafzai assassin held, freed in 2009 by Pakistan military

First Sentence: The would-be assassin who shot a Pakistani girl in the head ...

As you can see, they are not in agreement. The headline should read "attacker", should it not?

TheFreeDictionary also seems to believe that one must actually kill the target in order to be an assassin.

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Attempted murder is a different crime from murder. –  JAM Oct 19 '12 at 2:47
    
How about "assailant"? –  user21497 Oct 19 '12 at 4:31
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akin to: english.stackexchange.com/questions/73880/… –  MετάEd Oct 19 '12 at 4:58
    
That would not make Donald Trump an assassin, because I don't think he is successful. –  Blessed Geek Oct 19 '12 at 7:16
    
General Reference. Murderers and assassins are people who have actually killed at least one person. –  FumbleFingers Oct 19 '12 at 16:07

4 Answers 4

up vote 5 down vote accepted

Webster's 11th says

assassin: a person who commits murder; esp: one who murders a politically important person either from hire or for fanatical motives

So, in a strictly technical sense, the man referred to in the article is not an assassin.

The term may still be better than "attacker," though. I think the important distinction between "assassin" and the more ambiguous "attacker" is the issue of motive. If someone attacks another with the intent to murder, then that would be called an assassination attempt. Thus, the attacker is an "assassin" or at least a "would-be assassin." The latter term is probably more appropriate, but for the purposes of a headline (where there is limited space), I think "assassin" is okay.

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What if the triggerman ("a gunman who shoots the victim in a murder by a gang") is a professional assassin ("hit man") with numerous kills in his shooting cart? I wouldn't use "killer" or "murderer", but I'd probably put "failed" or "would-be" in front of "assassin". –  user21497 Oct 19 '12 at 3:24

That is an error. While one could claim that there is such a thing as being a failed assassin--someone that's trying or has tried to kill other people or has been retained by third parties to do so but has never succeeded--the use of "Malala Yousafzi" as a noun-adjective phrase with assassin suggests that Malala Yousafzi has died by assassination. This is not true at present and she looks set to make recovery.

So the headline is both wrong and also irresponsible, and the use of 'assassin' is wrong, too.

However, note that the general problem of categorization that you are pointing to pops up over and over again. Consider other expressions like "bankrupt millionaire" or "absent father." You might think the second one is a trick case because a father is a father whether the father is around or not--however, one would certainly not call a sperm donor an "absent father." So the "father" in "absent father" cannot simply be thought to refer to genetics alone.

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If you engage someone to murder your spouse, you have employed a hired killer even before any steps are taken to carry out the crime. Hired killer is a deliberate, planned role taken on by someone. That person is a hired killer even if she or he has never killed before, may fail to carry out the mission and may never take on another job. Consider

The team of hired killers were identified and captured before they could carry out their task.

This is somewhat different from murderer which may be a planned role or may be taken on spontaneously, in a fit of rage.

Assassin is a role that is more like hired killers. Someone deliberately takes on this role, usually plots and trains for the job and is often commissioned by a third party for that position. He or she is an assassin even before the attempted killing.

Despite that, use of the term in close connection to the name of the intended (but alive) victim could be confusing:

The assassin, John Hinkley, Jr., shot President Reagan in 1981.

It would not be confusing to say

The assassin, John Hinkley, Jr., planned his foiled attempt on President Reagan for many days.

While assassin is arguable correct even for a failed, first time criminal, most writers probably would use the phrase would-be assassin to avoid confusion.

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If you're going for truth, obviously, no, the person doing the shooting is not yet an assassin. He certainly is attempting to become an assassin.

Definitions are not about trying but about having done so.

The truthfulness we're talking about is not limited to assassin but about any word. To truthfully use a word, all its necessary components must be satisfied.

However, the situation here is more about simplification, the culture of newspapers and range of interpretation. The headline is necessarily a much shortened version of what follows, which may itself also be a simplification of reality. Which is to say that the culture is that

Newspaper headlines aren't always literal and can often be misleading

For the headline to call the person an assassin is simple a telegraphed ('much elided') message; the fuller explanation is that no the person is not exactly an assassin but he certainly intended to be one and it was only minor circumstance (a hairbreadth off in aiming) that missed fulfilling that one component of the definition.

Taken at face value, the headline is wrong (in the literal sense), but it could be judged to be close enough. It is not misleading (he meant to kill the girl), but in a court of law, the outcome is more easily judged than the intention.

This subtle employment of range of meanings, both in allowing leniency ('to try is about the same as to do') or literalness ('I did not have sex with that woman') can be used deliberately to one end or the other as a game of words.

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