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Anathema – Podictionary Word of the Day


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There was a recent story about a government agency trying to balance protection of a heard of wild horses with protection of lots of other things these horses eat and step on as they roam around between Montana and California.

One of the management measures being considered is to cull the herd; there are tens of thousands of them out there.

In the article I saw the following sentence appeared:

[for some] euthanasia as a solution remains anathema.

As a word anathema is one that I’ve never fully taken onboard.  I hear people use it, and I know it means “something bad” but somehow I don’t feel like I know the word well enough to actually use it myself.

I mean is it really anathema or is it an athema?

Should I be saying “kicking the dog is an anathema” or “kicking the dog is anathema”?

No one tells you these things, it’s like you have to figure them out for yourself.

So in preparing for this episode I thought I’d do a public service in finding answers to these burning questions.

I peeked into a couple of English usage texts and got no help. So I resorted to looking at examples.

In an English corpus database I use I found that 10% of usage was an anathema.  The remaining 90% said kicking the dog was anathema—well, not exactly but you know what I mean.

As far as breaking anathema into two words an athema well, nobody does that; I must be the only one dumb enough to think it might have been that way.

So now that I’ve educated myself, here’s the etymology.

A long long time ago the roots of this word were Indo-European and meant “to put,” or “to put up” or even “to hang up.”

As time went on important things were put up, and in trying to please the gods it was critical to offer up things of value.  This is where the word roots emerged in ancient Greek.

So back there at first anathema was a good thing. It was something worshiped or venerated and offered to the gods.

The Oxford English Dictionary has the original Greek translated as “a thing devoted.”

But all too often the things being given in offering to the gods were sheep and goats and the like.

Maybe just like people now don’t want those horses killed, somewhere back in pre-Roman Greek times people started thinking dead animals, and death in particular wasn’t such a good thing.

So anathema, that had been good, started to be bad.

And so it passed into Latin and then much later into English in the 1500s.

Because the 1500s was a time when intellectuals thought Greek and Latin were “the greatest” both the good and the bad meanings were adopted by different English intellectuals (the OED has citations for both).

The “bad” more specifically relate to excommunication and being cursed and that’s the one that stuck.

A 2007 OED draft addition to the entry on anathema gives as the current definition “loathsome” and “repugnant.”

Five days a week Charles Hodgson produces Podictionary – the podcast for word lovers, Thursday episodes here at OUPblog. He’s also the author of Carnal Knowledge – A Navel Gazer’s Dictionary of Anatomy, Etymology, and Trivia as well as the audio book Global Wording – The Fascinating Story of the Evolution of English.

Recent Comments

  1. […] Wednesday’s word origin was for carabiner Thursday’s etymology, posted at OUPblog was for anathema and Friday’s word root was for the word […]

  2. Justin

    Thanks! F’in lifesaver. I was gonna be anathema (or, alternately, albeit much less frequently, an anathema) to my history proffesor if I screwed up my usage. Good to know both are acceptable (I’ve used it before, with doubt boiling in my belly.) It’s probably because everybody has an essentially ambivalent relationship with the word that both usages are correct. No one REALLY knows how to use it.

  3. David_uk_51

    “An” or not to “an” … Anathema appears to be a noun, so it should be preceded with “an”, but, I believe the usage without the preceding “an” has been erroneously adopted because most people find the pronunciation of a double “an” in “an anathema” off-putting and can’t believe that it’s right. (Without the “an”, doesn’t it take the role of an adjective, which, according to the etymology, is wrong ?)

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