Aggressiveness is often used interchangeably with assertiveness, but the definitions are distinct. Let’s begin digging this week to see how they’re related… and how they’re not. Here are a few famous quotes to give you an idea how it has been used in popular literature and culture.

“You can’t have pride without humility. Aggression without tolerance. Strength without compassion. Power without restraint.”
― D.J. MacHale

“There is nothing worse than aggressive stupidity.”
― Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
“My generals should be like bull terriers on chains, and they should want war, war, war … But what happens now? I want to go ahead with my aggressive politics and the generals try to stop me. That’s a false situation.”
― Adolf Hitler
“No one is more arrogant toward women, more aggressive or scornful, than the man who is anxious about his virility.”
― Simone de Beauvoir


Aggression is a noun, once again originating from Latin, as in aggredior (“to attack, step toward, approach”).

ad- (“toward”)

+ gradi (“to step, proceed, walk”)



The word aggression was first used in the early 17th century in the sense of an attack (either unprovoked or in retaliation) on something or someone, often referring to military action in the context of war.

“It is accordance with our determination to refrain from aggression and build up a sentiment and practice among nations more favorable to peace … that we have incurred the consent of fourteen important nations to the negotiation of a treaty condemning recourse to war, renouncing it as an instrument of national policy.”

Calvin Coolidge (1872–1933), U.S. president. New York Times (August 16, 1928), about the Kellogg-Briand Pact of WWI

In the psychiatric sense of “hostile or destructive behavior” the word was first recorded in a 1912 translation of Freud’s psychoanalytic theory. Freud refers to the innate aggressive human drive Todestrieb, literally meaning “death instinct.”

“The hypothesis of a death instinct, the task of which is to lead organic life back into the inanimate state.”


aggression  (ə-grěsh’ən) noun

Pronunciation Key


overt or suppressed hostility

either innate or resulting from continued frustration and directed outward or against oneself


behavior meant to intimidate or injure another animal but is not considered predatory

action may be displayed during mating rituals or to defend territory


the action of a state in violating by force the rights of another state, particularly its territorial rights

an unprovoked offensive, attack,invasion, or the like

any offensive action, attack, or procedure

the practice of making assaults; offensive action in general

Synonyms — hostility, antagonism, belligerence, combativeness, destructiveness, pugnacity
   — assault, encroachment, invasion, offensive, onslaught, raid, blitz
Antonyms — peacefulness, nonaggression


It is interesting to think about aggression in human beings as a fight or flight response, which is exactly how those in the fields of psychology and psychiatry see it. Research in neuropsychology tells us that aggression is experienced in a specific location in the brain: the amygdala. This is a primal response that unfortunately can occur without the help of the higher-thinking areas like the rational prefrontal cortex, resulting in aggressive behavior.
So, how does aggressive behavior get triggered? The short answer is stress.
Next week I’ll dive into the word assertion to see what makes it different from aggression. This should help clue us in on why and how these words are interconnected and interrelated in the world of language.
Related articles
aggression. (n.d.). The American Heritage® Science Dictionary. Retrieved October 27, 2013, from