at·​tri·​tion | \ ə-ˈtri-shən How to pronounce attrition (audio) , 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 How to pronounce attritional (audio) \ 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

The Navy also knew that if the Cold War ever turned hot, a brutal war of attrition would be waged in the skies. Alex Hollings, Popular Mechanics, "Why the F-14 Tomcat Is Such a Badass Plane," 3 May 2019 Further attrition could spur other Knesset members to call for a vote of no confidence and trigger early elections. Dov Lieber, WSJ, "Israeli Defense Minister Resigns, Threatening Netanyahu’s Grip on Power," 14 Nov. 2018 Old Orchard Beach High School, where faculty wear many hats, has cut the equivalent of five full-time teachers through attrition since 2015. Jennifer Levitz, WSJ, "Eight-Player Football and a Single Cheerleader: School Sports Adapt to Fewer Students," 16 Jan. 2019 Photo: Wesley Hitt/Getty Images Some schools are seeing donor attrition due to the change. Laura Saunders, WSJ, "Forget the Playoff, College Football’s Burning Question Is About Taxes," 16 Nov. 2018 But no, black women have the highest attrition rate. Shirin Ghaffary, Recode, "After 20,000 workers walked out, Google said it got the message. The workers disagree.," 21 Nov. 2018 The attrition rate was running at 30 percent a year, according to the last figures, made public in 2016. Rod Nordland, The Seattle Times, "The Afghan army’s last stand at Chinese Camp," 14 Aug. 2018 There’s an attrition curve that’s reasonably consistent across games. Brian Barrett, WIRED, "The Quiet, Steady Dominance of Pokémon Go," 6 July 2018 And the rule seems to be that companies are trying to beat us into submission through mental attrition. Vlad Savov, The Verge, "Isn’t it time we declared our independence from bloatware?," 4 July 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



Statistics for attrition

Last Updated

14 May 2019

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Time Traveler for attrition

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

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More Definitions for attrition



English Language Learners Definition of attrition

chiefly US : 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 How to pronounce attrition (audio) \

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 How to pronounce attritional (audio) \ adjective

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More from Merriam-Webster on attrition

Rhyming Dictionary: Words that rhyme with attrition

Thesaurus: All synonyms and antonyms for attrition

Spanish Central: Translation of attrition

Britannica English: Translation of attrition for Arabic Speakers

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).


highly pertinent or appropriate

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