at·​a·​vism | \ ˈa-tə-ˌvi-zəm \

Definition of atavism

1a : 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

Keep scrolling for more

Other Words from atavism

atavistic \ ˌa-​tə-​ˈvis-​tik \ adjective
atavistically \ -​ti-​k(ə-​)lē \ 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

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, "Can America’s Two Tribes Learn to Live Together?," 19 Apr. 2018 Any account of the new American atavism has to take into account that the same system that produced Trump had immediately before given us the eight forward-looking years of Obama, who remains a far more popular figure than his successor. Adam Gopnik, The New Yorker, "Are Liberals on the Wrong Side of History?," 20 Mar. 2017

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.

First Known Use of atavism

1833, in the meaning defined at sense 1a

History and Etymology for atavism

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

Keep scrolling for more

Learn More about atavism

Listen to Our Podcast about atavism

Dictionary Entries near atavism








Statistics for atavism

Look-up Popularity

Time Traveler for atavism

The first known use of atavism was in 1833

See more words from the same year

Keep scrolling for more

More Definitions for atavism


at·​a·​vism | \ ˈat-ə-ˌviz-əm \

Medical Definition of atavism

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

Other Words from atavism

atavistic \ ˌat-​ə-​ˈvis-​tik \ adjective
atavistically \ -​ti-​k(ə-​)lē \ adverb

More from Merriam-Webster on atavism

Rhyming Dictionary: Words that rhyme with atavism

Comments on atavism

What made you want to look up atavism? Please tell us where you read or heard it (including the quote, if possible).


irregularly rounded

Get Word of the Day daily email!

Test Your Vocabulary

What did you just call me?! A Quiz

  • rows-of-various-emoji
  • If a member of the audience describes your speech as bombastic, does that person mean it is:
How Strong Is Your Vocabulary?

Test your vocabulary with our 10-question quiz!


Test Your Knowledge - and learn some interesting things along the way.


Love words? Need even more definitions?

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