I was caught up with the word, “the bloody altercation” in the following statement of New York Times (April 25) article titled “Officer’s killing spurred pursuit in Boston attack.” http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/25/us/officers-killing-spurred-pursuit-in-boston-attack.html?nl=todaysheadlines&emc=edit_th_20130425&_r=0

-It was just a little after that routine interaction, the police said, that a pair of men approached Officer Collier’s squad car from behind and shot him to death, in what some law enforcement officials said appeared to have been a failed attempt to steal his gun.

-The killing of Officer Collier, who was mourned Wednesday at a campus memorial at which Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. spoke, was the first bloody altercation in a nearly 24-hour chain of violent events that left one of the brothers suspected in the Boston Marathon bombings dead and ended with the capture of the other.

Was there an enough time to allow an “altercation” when the culprits approached the squad car from behind and shot the officer to death? Was the (noisy) argument "in public"?

As I'm unfamiliar with the word, altercation, I consulted with dictionaries.

OED defines “altercation” as “a noisy argument or disagreement, especially in public.”

To me the showdown of the campus officer and Boston Marathon bombers was more than an “altercation” though it being preceded by the adjective, “bloody.”

CED defines it as “a loud argument or disagreement” as well.

So my simple question: Is the word, “bloody altercation” really pertinent to describe the critical scene where the culpits shot the officer no sooner than they approached the squad car from behind? In other word, is it 'phisically' possible for both the officer and culpits to get engaged in "an altercation" in such an instant?

By the way, the New York Daily News of the same day uses the word “Confrontation” for describing the killing scene:

Two people embrace in front of a memorial to MIT Police Officer Sean Collier, who was killed during a confrontation with the suspects in the bombings of Boston Marathon.

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    Altercation is in my mind an exchange of words. However on the web there is a distinction between physical and verbal altercation so it may be used when the guns do the noisy talking
    – mplungjan
    Apr 25, 2013 at 9:35
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    If the word, ‘altercation’ is applied to the events of ‘the gun doing the noisy talking,’ all the stories of cowboy pictures are about (bloody or not-bloody) altercation,’ and heroes played by Gary Cooper and John Wayne are 'experts of altercation,’ aren’t they? Apr 25, 2013 at 19:35
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    I wouldn't call it "the precise expression" (or the best), but it's not wrong. Altercations can be physical confrontations. A fistfight in a public place could certainly be called an altercation. It does seem unusual to use the word for such severe violence, but it's not wrong. I'm not sure if it's why you mention it, but 'confrontation' is also, debatably, an awkward-but-not-wrong choice of word. And yes, you could say that westerns (and a lot of other movies) involve altercations.
    – hunter2
    Apr 26, 2013 at 3:02
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    @hunter2: That was my initial impression, too, until I started doing some digging. What I found surprised me some.
    – J.R.
    Apr 26, 2013 at 3:09
  • A "bloody altercation" is another way of saying a "violent clash", so yes it's perfectly acceptable. May 4, 2013 at 21:13

1 Answer 1


Until I started cross-checking some dictionaries, I didn't realize that altercation exclusively meant argument or quarrel by definition. I would have thought that it could also be synonymous with scuffle, but it was hard to find dictionary support for that assumption.

Both altercation and scuffle have fight listed as a synonym, so they are somewhat related. However, you bring up an excellent point, one the Bryson mentions in his Dictionary of Troublesome Words:

No one suffers physical injury in an altercation. It is a heated exchange of words and nothing more.

If that's true, then the word altercation certainly deserves an entry in the Troublesome Word guide. A Google books search shows quite a few more-than-mere-words altercations; here are a few:

From a history book: Chief Bull Bear was shot in an altercation and it was said that the young Red Cloud fired the shot.1

From the official rules of ice hockey: A game misconduct penalty, at the discretion of the Referee, shall be imposed on any player or goalkeeper who is the first to intervene in an altercation already in progress.2

From Black Belt magazine: It's not how much you can hurt a person in an altercation, but how little you can hurt a person and still control him.3

From The Mafia Encyclopedia: It was here that Capone picked up his moniker of “Scarface Al,” after his left cheek was slashed in an altercation over a girl with a hoodlum named Frank Galluccio.4

I did find this usage note in NOAD, under its entry for quarrel:


Fighting is an unfriendliness that comes in a variety of shapes and sizes. A husband and his wife may have a quarrel, which suggests a heated verbal argument, with hostility that may persist even after it is over : it took them almost a week to patch up their quarrel.

Siblings tend to have squabbles, which are childlike disputes over trivial matters, although they are by no means confined to childhood : frequent squabbles over who would pick up the check.

A spat is also a petty quarrel, but unlike squabble, it suggests an angry outburst followed by a quick ending without hard feelings : another spat in an otherwise loving relationship.

A row is more serious, involving noisy quarreling and the potential for physical violence : a row that woke the neighbors.

Neighbors are more likely to have an altercation, which is usually confined to verbal blows but may involve actual or threatened physical ones : an altercation over the location of the fence.

In short, I suspect most readers of the article wouldn't have blinked an eye over the use of altercation in that news story. However, upon further investigation, it doesn't seem to be a good choice of words. At the very least, to be accurately labeled as an altercation, the confrontation should at least begin with an argument; I have a feeling that wasn't the case during that Wednesday's tragic events.

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    Good research. I was (am) too lazy to find any sources, but I'm pretty sure I've seen references to things like scuffles in fast food restaurants as 'altercations' as well (in news articles, I guess). I was actually thinking something similar to the last thing you say re 'confrontation' - that if they approached and shot from behind, it's not really a confrontation.
    – hunter2
    Apr 26, 2013 at 3:24

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