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Who’d be an Assassin?

President Trump is reported to be displeased when people refer to the recent killing of the Iranian military chief as an assassination. I’m not surprised; after all an assassin, both in history and popular fiction, is usually the baddy (a revolutionary or a hired hand) who murders a goody (a Tsar, say, or an arch duke).

But is the assassin always the bad guy? Certainly my dictionary describes one as ‘a murderer, especially one who kills a prominent political figure.’ The noun, apparently comes from the Latin assassinus (singular), which in turn came from the Arabic hashshashin (plural). So far so good. But the singular of hashshashin is hashshash, which means one who eats hashish / cannabis.

It’s a bit odd to think the noun assassin is derived from the word for the taker of a well-known hallucinatory drug, but there is another meaning which may explain the link. During the eleventh to thirteenth century the Assassins were a secret sect of Muslim fanatics in Persia and Syria who went around murdering their victims – usually Christian Crusaders.

In 1256 the Assassins were wiped out – not by the Crusaders, but by marauding Mongols from central Asia. Maybe they were all stoned at the time, but in any event it seems the Mongols were more effective killers than the Assassins. However the Mongolian expertise as killers hasn’t lived on in their name.

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