If I asked you to define the word assassination, you probably wouldn’t have much difficulty. You’d probably say something like the killing of a famous or important person.
And that would be perfectly fine.
But recently I wondered if there’s a specific distinction between murder and assassination.
I mean, what precisely is a famous or important person? Is there a specific degree of fame, after which one’s killing becomes an assassination instead of just plain old murder? Is there a particular definition of importance which encompasses those who get the honour of assassination?
Well, no. Most definitions of assassination stress that the importance of the dead person usually involves them being a political figure, and that an assassination is also planned in advance.
Because of this lack of a precise distinction, there can be some ambiguity and subjectivity about whether a killing is a murder or an assassination. An interesting case of this is the killing of American outlaw Jesse James by Robert Ford in 1882. The goveror of Missouri, Thomas T. Crittenden, offered a reward for James’ capture, and would grant Ford a pardon after his conviction for murder. However, Ford and Crittenden were vilified by the American public, who came to see the killing as an assassination, granting James legendary status.
An interesting myth about the word assassin by the way, is that it shares an etymology with hashish, as the original Order of Assassins (who operated in the Middle East from the 11th to 13th centuries) would smoke plenty of the stuff before committing their assassinations.
That’s not precisely true, but there is still a link. It seems that the term hashshāshīn (hashish user) was attributed to the Order as a pejorative term by their enemies (akin to junkie or druggy), as opposed to because the Assassins liked to partake in the drug. Which makes sense, as getting stoned probably isn’t beneficial to ensuring the success of an intricately-planned assassination.