atavism

noun

at·​a·​vism ˈa-tə-ˌvi-zəm How to pronounce atavism (audio)
1
a
: recurrence in an organism of a trait or character typical of an ancestral form and usually due to genetic recombination
b
: recurrence of or reversion to a past style, manner, outlook, approach, or activity
architectural atavism
2
: an individual or character that manifests atavism : throwback
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
atavistic adjective
atavistically adverb

Did you know?

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.

Examples of atavism in a Sentence

Recent Examples on the Web This sumptuous piece of theatrical atavism bore little resemblance to the actual events of Mozart’s life, but most nonpurist musicians happily accepted the melodramatization; quite apart from the thespian pyrotechnics, the sophisticated choice of music was a revelation. Simon Callow, The New York Review of Books, 22 Dec. 2022 Is my interest in the moon some dormant atavism from a more primitive era of human life? Matthew Gavin Frank, Harper's Magazine, 21 Oct. 2022 Early on, these doctors-cum-criminal-profilers explained bad apples through theories such as atavism. WIRED, 21 Feb. 2023 If learning and gentility are signs of civilization, perhaps our almost-big brains are straining against their residual atavism, struggling to expand. Richard Granger, Discover Magazine, 31 Oct. 2022 Obama crashed against a wall of atavism and paranoia. Matthew Continetti, National Review, 29 Jan. 2022 This gives his career an arc of atavism and abnegating tragedy, a willful artist hopelessly at the mercy of his obsessions. Jerry Saltz, Vulture, 22 Sep. 2021 This was the heyday of Cesare Lombroso’s racist theories about recognizable criminal types and Max Nordau’s study Degeneration, which spread fear of atavism and perversion. Michael Dirda, The New York Review of Books, 28 May 2020 Because the United States has proved successful in absorbing people from so many different backgrounds, the American political elite has, since the mid-20th century at least, tended to look on group identity as a kind of irrational atavism. Park MacDougald, Daily Intelligencer, 19 Apr. 2018

These examples are programmatically compiled from various online sources to illustrate current usage of the word 'atavism.' Any opinions expressed in the examples do not represent those of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback about these examples.

Word History

Etymology

French atavisme, from Latin atavus ancestor, from at- (probably akin to atta daddy) + avus grandfather — more at uncle

First Known Use

1833, in the meaning defined at sense 1a

Time Traveler
The first known use of atavism was in 1833

Podcast

Dictionary Entries Near atavism

Cite this Entry

“Atavism.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/atavism. Accessed 24 Jun. 2024.

Medical Definition

atavism

noun
at·​a·​vism ˈat-ə-ˌviz-əm How to pronounce atavism (audio)
1
: recurrence in an organism of a trait or character typical of an ancestral form and usually due to genetic recombination
2
: an individual or character manifesting atavism : throwback
atavistic adjective
atavistically adverb

More from Merriam-Webster on atavism

Love words? Need even more definitions?

Subscribe to America's largest dictionary and get thousands more definitions and advanced search—ad free!