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 \ ə-​ˈtri-​sh(ə-​)nᵊl How to pronounce attritional (audio) , a-​ \ adjective

Synonyms & Antonyms for attrition



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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 Scars that suggest natural attrition are actually made by the artist, whose gestures drew from her background as a dancer. Mark Jenkins, Washington Post, "In the galleries: At three venues, modernist art that looks to the past," 8 Nov. 2019 But what if school districts could head off some of the most probable attrition scenarios at the outset, simply by making smarter hiring decisions? Michelle Cheng, Quartz at Work, "An experiment to find teachers who perform better and stay longer shows promising results," 7 Nov. 2019 The last time Alabama and LSU met as the country’s top two teams during the regular season, the Tigers won a defensive battle of attrition 9-6 in overtime. Creg Stephenson |, al, "ESPN’s ‘Bear’ Fallica offers predictions on LSU-Alabama, College Football Playoff," 5 Nov. 2019 Despite mounting attrition in the Cincinnati football backfield this season, the Bearcats have made it to November with star Michael Warren II's workload cut drastically. Fletcher Page,, "UC football notes: Michael Warren II well-rested as Bearcats push for AAC title," 31 Oct. 2019 In general, however, battles for hearts and minds are won by grinding attrition more often than by rapid conquest. The Economist, "Societies change their minds faster than people do," 31 Oct. 2019 That will lead to some employee attrition over time, the company says. Nathaniel Meyersohn, CNN, "Walmart wants robots in stores. Target doesn't," 24 Oct. 2019 The decrease is in part natural staff attrition, but the other factor, according to chef and co-owner Nick Cobarruvias, is wage costs. Dp Opinion, The Denver Post, "Letters: Yes, let’s look at San Francisco’s minimum wage hike (10/5/19)," 6 Oct. 2019 The 2016 and 2017 Penguins battled attrition and overcame injuries to win the Cup. San Diego Union-Tribune, "Variety of champs shows there’s no one Stanley Cup blueprint," 28 Sep. 2019

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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Time Traveler for attrition

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

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Last Updated

12 Nov 2019

Cite this Entry

“Attrition.” The Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Inc., Accessed 22 November 2019.

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More Definitions for attrition


How to pronounce attrition (audio)

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

Thesaurus: All synonyms and antonyms for attrition

Rhyming Dictionary: Words that rhyme with attrition

Spanish Central: Translation of attrition

Britannica English: Translation of attrition for Arabic Speakers

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