anath·​e·​ma | \ ə-ˈna-thə-mə How to pronounce anathema (audio) \

Definition of anathema

1a : someone or something intensely disliked or loathed usually used as a predicate nominative … this notion was anathema to most of his countrymen.— Stephen Jay Gould
b : one that is cursed by ecclesiastical authority
2a : a ban or curse solemnly pronounced by ecclesiastical authority and accompanied by excommunication
b : the denunciation of something as accursed
c : a vigorous denunciation : curse

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Word History of Anathema

The Greek root of anathema originally meant simply “a thing devoted” or “an offering,” and in the Old Testament it could refer to either revered objects or objects representing destruction brought about in the name of the Lord, such as the weapons of an enemy. Since the enemy’s objects therefore became symbols of what was reviled or unholy, the neutral meaning of “a thing devoted” became “a thing devoted to evil” or “curse.”

In Latin, it could refer to both an excommunication and the person who has been excommunicated.

In the early Church, anathema was used interchangeably with excommunication and to refer to unrepentant heretics. It then came to mean the severest form of excommunication in official church writings. When the authority of Rome was split in the Great Schism between Eastern and Western churches in 1054, an anathema was issued by Rome against the Eastern Patriarch who then issued another one against the cardinal who delivered it.

The History of Anathema Is Contradictory

Historically, anathema can be considered a one-word oxymoron. When it first appeared in English in 1526, it was used to refer to something accursed. Shortly thereafter, however, people also began to use it to refer to something consecrated to divine use—generally a good thing. Why the contradiction? Anathema comes from Greek, where it initially meant "anything devoted" and later "anything devoted to evil." The "consecrated to divine use" sense of anathema comes from that earlier Greek use but is not widely used today.

Examples of anathema in a Sentence

Maugham was not only prolific but also a best-seller, though snobs dismissed his work as middlebrow (a category that few people worry about in our day but that once was anathema). — Edmund White, New York Review of Books, 12 Feb. 2009 While everything pointed to an immense flood, Bretz knew such a notion would be anathema to his fellow geologists. In part that was because the quantity of water needed for such a flood would exceed the flow of all the world's modern rivers combined. — Richard Lovett, New Scientist, 21-27 Apr. 2007 Big Jeff was devoted to Purcell. He haunted his room and patiently endured his abuse just to sit in the corner and watch him shave or do push-ups or dress for dinner, and listen to him pronounce his opinions and anathemas. — Tobias Wolff, Old School, 2003 For all the artistic wonders it has preserved, the Holy Mountain is not a museum, and the idea of playing host to sightseers is anathema to the monks. Male visitors of all faiths are welcome, but they come as pilgrims, not tourists, and only 110 "residence permits" are issued each day by patristic officials in Ouranoupolis. — Nicholas Basbanes, Smithsonian, August 1999 a politician who is anathema to conservatives ideas that are an anathema to me
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Recent Examples on the Web The vast majority of Hong Kong people do not support independence, but any mention of the idea is anathema to Beijing. NBC News, 23 Nov. 2021 The vast majority of Hong Kong people do not support independence, but any mention of the idea is anathema to Beijing. Reuters, CNN, 23 Nov. 2021 To a conservative however, the idea should be anathema. Charles C. W. Cooke, National Review, 18 Oct. 2021 With nature red in tooth and claw, and germs as the root of disease, the idea of animals benefiting from cooperative microbes was anathema. Ed Yong, The Atlantic, 2 Oct. 2021 The kind of multilateral engagement required to tackle the climate crisis is anathema to the nationalist leaders governing some of the world’s biggest polluters, Bolsonaro among them. Yasmeen Serhan, The Atlantic, 12 Nov. 2021 This is why Macron is (rightly) changing course on nuclear energy, throwing his support behind a technology that has been anathema to most greens for decades. Andrew Stuttaford, National Review, 6 Nov. 2021 Similarly, there’s no mention of crosses when discussing ways to defeat Dracula, since the idea of a Christian cross having any kind of divine power over evil would be anathema to Muslims. Vulture Editors, Vulture, 25 Oct. 2021 Crisp-edged and peanut-encrusted, the appetizer is unobjectionable if generic, a word that would likely be anathema to Chang, seemingly a violation of the Momofuku spirit. The New Yorker, 8 Oct. 2021

These example sentences are selected automatically from various online news sources to reflect current usage of the word 'anathema.' Views expressed in the examples do not represent the opinion of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback.

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First Known Use of anathema

1582, in the meaning defined at sense 1b

History and Etymology for anathema

Late Latin anathemat-, anathema, from Greek, thing devoted to evil, curse, from anatithenai to set up, dedicate, from ana- + tithenai to place, set — more at do

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The first known use of anathema was in 1582

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Last Updated

28 Nov 2021

Cite this Entry

“Anathema.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 2 Dec. 2021.

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English Language Learners Definition of anathema

: someone or something that is very strongly disliked

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Nglish: Translation of anathema for Spanish Speakers

Britannica English: Translation of anathema for Arabic Speakers Encyclopedia article about anathema


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