Definition of atavism
- architectural atavism
- He was a magnificent atavism, a man so purely primitive that he was of the type that came into the world before the development of the moral nature.
- —Jack London
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These example sentences are selected automatically from various online news sources to reflect current usage of the word 'atavism.' Views expressed in the examples do not represent the opinion of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback.
Atavism derives via French from Latin atavus, meaning "ancestor." Avus in Latin means "grandfather," and it's believed that the at is related to atta, a word for "daddy." Atavism is a term rooted in evolutionary study, referring to instances when an organism possesses traits closer to a more remote ancestor, rather than its own parents. That sense dates to the early part of the 19th century. The word's figurative sense is a more recent development. These days one might describe a building that looks like it's from an earlier era as an atavism, or (though some people might cringe at this) apply the word to activities like reading actual paper books in the age of electronics.
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