The Grammarphobia Blog

Aggressive behavior

Q: If a batter takes too many pitches in baseball or a fielder doesn’t charge a grounder, it’s said that the batter or fielder doesn’t exhibit enough aggression. Every time I hear that, I think it should be “aggressiveness.” It seems to me that “aggression” has more to do with warlike actions and has a darker meaning than “aggressiveness.” Am I wrong?

A: “Aggression” is a lot older than “aggressiveness,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, and it seems to be a lot more common too, if one can judge from the number of citations in the OED and the number of hits on Google..

The word “aggression,” meaning an attack, first showed up in English in 1611, borrowed from the French agression. By the early 1700s, it also referred in a general way to the making of such attacks.

The latecomer, “aggressiveness,” which the OED defines as “the quality of being aggressive,” first showed up in an 1859 British comment about “the insatiable aggressiveness of France.”

Although both words are still being used in this bellicose way, “aggression” and “aggressive” took on a new meaning in the early 20th century when psychologists and psychiatrists began using them to refer to hostile or destructive behavior.

The term “aggression,” according to the OED, has been used in a positive way for about half a century to mean a “feeling or energy displayed in asserting oneself, in showing drive or initiative; aggressiveness, assertiveness, forcefulness.”

The first published reference for this sense comes from Summerhill (1960), a book by the Scottish educator Alexander Sutherland Neil: “Well, every child has to have some aggression in order to force his way through life.”

A 1968 citation from the now-defunct British magazine The Listener describes a broadcast as “presented with aggression and self-confidence.”

Curiously, I can’t find any citations in the OED for the use of “aggressiveness” in this positive way, but I think this is an oversight, since the word “aggressive” has been used that way since 1930, when a Canadian help-wanted advertisement sought an “aggressive clothing salesman with ambition.”

So, in answer to your question, one could make an etymological case for using either “aggression” or “aggressiveness” to refer to self-assertion in sports. But I agree with you that “aggressiveness” seems more appropriate than “aggression.”

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