noun at·tri·tion \ ə-ˈtri-shən , a- \
|Updated on: 6 Aug 2018

Definition of attrition

[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


play \-ˈtri-sh(ə-)nᵊl\ adjective

Examples of attrition in a Sentence

  1. 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 LardnerNew York Review of Books14 June 2007
  2. 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. ShirleyAtlanticFebruary 1998
  3. 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 JonesElements of Military Strategy1996
  4. Attrition is high among social workers because of the difficult work and poor pay.

  5. took the machinery out of operation since attrition had led to the main mechanism's breaking

Recent Examples of attrition from the Web

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.

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.

Origin and Etymology of attrition

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

attrition Synonyms



Near Antonyms

gain, increase;

Other Christian Religious Terms

ATTRITION Defined for English Language Learners


Definition of attrition for English Language Learners

  • : 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

Medical Dictionary


noun 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


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

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