A doublet of the word attach, attack ultimately comes from a Germanic root meaning “stake.”
London has again faced another terrorist attack, this time from a Welsh man who plowed his van into a group of Muslim people near a mosque in Finsbury Park. As the word attack has become, alas, an all-too familiar one—excepting its application to white extremists—let’s see what me might learn from its etymology.
Attack takes on English as early as 1576, first used in the phrase to attack a skirmish. As a skirmish is already a kind of hostility, is attacking a skirmish some kind of counterattack?
The original attack actually meant “to begin” and is derived from the Italian attaccare (battaglia), “to join (battle).” Etymologists think attaccare comes from the same root as attach, entering English in the early 1300s from the French attacher (“fasten,” also source of attaché). Attacher stems from an older verb, estachier, formed from estache, a “post, nail, or stake.” Stake is the operative word here: It, too, joins estache in the Germanic root, *stakon-, “stake.”
Pulling up the stakes
Proto-Indo-European (PIE) scholars drive *stakon- yet deeper into the etymological ground: *steg-, a “pole” or “stick,” which they believe is also the source of stack, stagger, and stockade. This *steg- appears to be a part of a close family of “prickly” PIE roots, including *steig-, base of “stick.”
The metaphor is clear: Stakes fix things (e.g., tents) into the ground, fixing things into the ground fastens them together, fastening things together joins, and joining something is kind of first engagement, especially when it comes to a military attack.
By the 1600s, attack encompassed the full sense of “engage in hostilities” on its own, including figurative assaults waged by public criticism or disease. Attack emerges as a noun for “aggressive military action” in the 1650s. In the 1680s, we see attack in its softened extension, “to deal with (a problem),” employed in sports by the 1700s, music by the 1800s, and in computer science by the 1970s.
Attach, meanwhile, first meant to “seize (a person or property)” in the English of the early 1300s, settling into its current “fasten” sense by the 1400s. Attach and attack aren’t just two different form of the same root (called “doublets”), though. During the 1400–1600s, the word attach itself doubled as the word attack, a semantic battle the latter ultimately won.
Attack and release
These days, terrorist attacks can feel all too staccato, puncturing our lives and news in sharp, periodic bursts, like some horrific symphony. And indeed, the musical term staccato comes from the Italian for “detached,” a word itself from the French for “dis-attach.” While we can never fully detach attacks from our modern world, we should never become too detached from their violence and hatred.