at·tri·tion | \ə-ˈtri-shən, a-\

Definition of attrition 

1 [ Middle English attricioun, from Medieval Latin, attrition-, attritio, from Latin ] : sorrow for one's sins that arises from a motive other than that of the love of God

2 : the act of rubbing together : friction also : the act of wearing or grinding down by friction Stones can be smoothed and polished by attrition.

3 : the act of weakening or exhausting by constant harassment, abuse, or attack a war of attrition

4 : a reduction in numbers usually as a result of resignation, retirement, or death a company with a high rate of attrition

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Other Words from attrition

attritional \-ˈtri-sh(ə-)nᵊl \ adjective

Synonyms & Antonyms for attrition


corrosion, erosion, undermining, waste



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Word History of Attrition

The earliest meaning of the English attrition related to spiritual repentance was borrowed from the figurative meaning of the medieval Latin etymon attritio: "hardship, tribulation." This figurative meaning stemmed from the earlier uses of attritio that refer to bruising or wearing away by rubbing—two processes that, when applied to the body, can feel like tribulation. One obsolete and early use of the English attrition referred to the breaking or crushing of tissue, and was used in medical contexts.

The newer senses of attrition are little more than a century old. The common phrase war of attrition refers to a sustained effort to steadily wear down the defenses of an opponent, with the result that they are rendered weaker and less effective. From this sense comes the still-later meaning that refers to a reduction in numbers by a gradual and natural "wearing down" of an organization's ranks through death, retirement, or resignation.

Examples of attrition in a Sentence

His first response was a plan to streamline management, reducing the company's white-collar ranks through attrition. An old-school CEO who had been with Stanley most of his adult life, Davis considered layoffs a last resort. But by the time he stepped down as CEO in 1987, hundreds of factory workers had lost their jobs on his orders. — James Lardner, New York Review of Books, 14 June 2007 Younger operatives are resigning in droves, because they have given up hope of reform. The attrition was sufficient to provoke an investigation by the inspector general in 1996. — Edward G. Shirley, Atlantic, February 1998 This had led the British to look upon these sieges as an opportunity to deplete the German army by the gradual process of attrition. Because by 1917, they had so many cannon and such immense supplies of ammunition, they believed that their attacks could inflict more manpower losses than they themselves would suffer. — Archer Jones, Elements of Military Strategy, 1996 Attrition is high among social workers because of the difficult work and poor pay. took the machinery out of operation since attrition had led to the main mechanism's breaking
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Recent Examples on the Web

School officials expect to find the savings through attrition, reduction in administrative staff and less spending on equipment and supplies, among other areas. Jacob Carpenter, Houston Chronicle, "In wake of Santa Fe, clergy, police push for civility on final week of school," 29 May 2018 Loyola-Michigan projects as a war of attrition, and few teams have been better than the Wolverines at wearing down opponents this season. Michael Beller,, "Final Four Breakdown: Which Factors Will Decide Michigan vs. Loyola-Chicago?," 26 Mar. 2018 After two and a half months of recruiting, attrition, coaching changes, conditioning and NFL draft preparation, the Louisville football program is finally returning to the field this week for spring camp. Jake Lourim, The Courier-Journal, "Louisville football opens spring camp this week. Here's what you should keep an eye on.," 19 Mar. 2018 Three months later, after some more recruiting losses and roster attrition, Matta was fired. Bill Landis,, "Former Ohio State coach Thad Matta meets with Ole Miss about coaching job: Report," 3 Mar. 2018 Through attrition, the district projects spending $500,000 less for teachers and other certificated employees and $125,00 less for support staff. Maureen Robertson,, "Trustees critique district budget at workshop," 7 Feb. 2018 But the attrition has been especially stark under Gov. Rosselló. Andrew Scurria, WSJ, "Puerto Rico Power Utility CEO Resigns After Less Than Four Months on Job," 11 July 2018 Or the work may not pick up as quickly as leadership anticipated, affecting employee morale and potentially resulting in attrition of key talent. Elaine Varelas,, "Worker weighs pros and cons of a four-day week, pay cut," 6 July 2018 According to a pair of new studies, efforts to comply with the European Union’s new GDPR regulations are leading to huge attrition in existing email lists. David Z. Morris, Fortune, "Europe's New Data Rules Are Gutting Email Marketing Everywhere," 16 June 2018

These example sentences are selected automatically from various online news sources to reflect current usage of the word 'attrition.' Views expressed in the examples do not represent the opinion of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback.

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First Known Use of attrition

14th century, in the meaning defined at sense 1

History and Etymology for attrition

Latin attrition-, attritio, from atterere to rub against, from ad- + terere to rub — more at throw entry 1

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Dictionary Entries near attrition





attrition mill



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Last Updated

15 Oct 2018

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Time Traveler for attrition

The first known use of attrition was in the 14th century

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English Language Learners Definition of attrition

: a reduction in the number of employees or participants that occurs when people leave because they resign, retire, etc., and are not replaced

: the act or process of weakening and gradually defeating an enemy through constant attacks and continued pressure over a long period of time


at·tri·tion | \ə-ˈtrish-ən \

Medical Definition of attrition 

: the act of rubbing together also : the act of wearing or grinding down by friction attrition of teeth

Other Words from attrition

attritional \-ˈtrish-nəl, -ˈtrish-ən-ᵊl \ adjective

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Comments on attrition

What made you want to look up attrition? Please tell us where you read or heard it (including the quote, if possible).


evasion of direct action or statement

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