heathen

1 of 2

adjective

hea·​then ˈhē-t͟hən How to pronounce heathen (audio)
1
old-fashioned + often disparaging : of or relating to people or nations that do not practice Christianity, Judaism, or Islam : of or relating to heathens (see heathen entry 2 sense 1), their religions, or their customs : pagan
heathen rituals
2
old-fashioned + disapproving : strange, uncivilized

heathen

2 of 2

noun

plural heathens or heathen
1
old-fashioned + often disparaging : a person who is not religious or whose religion is not Judaism, Islam, or especially Christianity
Was it better to marry? Even if the man was a heathen? Zadie Smith
… gathered in the evening … to look me over, their first heathen. Arthur Miller
2
old-fashioned + disapproving : a nonreligious or uncultured person
… they grew up with a keen awareness of Edward's business partner, a true heathen who exemplified eccentric creativity and personal flamboyance. Nicholas Fox Weber
heathendom noun
heathenism noun
heathenize transitive verb

Did you know?

What do pagan and heathen really mean?

Pagan is derived from the Late Latin paganus, which was used at the end of the Roman Empire to name those who practiced a religion other than Christianity, Judaism, or Islam. Early Christians often used the term to refer to non-Christians who worshiped multiple deities. In Latin, paganus originally meant “country dweller” or “civilian"; it is believed that the word’s religious meanings developed either from the enduring non-Christian religious practices of those who lived far from the Roman cities where Christianity was more quickly adopted, or from the fact that early Christians referred to themselves as “soldiers of Christ,” making nonbelievers “civilians.”

The definition and etymology of heathen overlap with those of pagan: both words denote “an unconverted member of a people or nation that does not acknowledge the God of the Bible,” and heathen, like pagan, is believed to have come from the term for a country inhabitant, or in this case, a "heath dweller."

Both words have developed broader and pejorative meanings over time, with pagan being used to mean “an irreligious or hedonistic person” and heathen “uncivilized” or “strange,” but their original meanings are still in use.

Example Sentences

Adjective old missionaries who mistakenly thought that they were going off to China to tame the heathen hordes Noun a study of the beliefs and practices of ancient heathens European colonizers, who considered the New World peoples to be heathens, forced them to conform to European ways.
Recent Examples on the Web
Adjective
The Cincinnati Bengals welcome the media heathen universe for a gab session/sitdown, linen-tablecloth lunch known in This Space as The Mock Turtle Soupfest and Weenie Roast. Paul Daugherty, Cincinnati.com, 28 May 2019 Some of my brethren and sis-tren (sis-tren?) in the heathen media tribe get all riled up if a player or coach won’t speak to them. Paul Daugherty, Cincinnati.com, 30 May 2019 Each essay will identify a contemporary issue, discuss it through the lens of heathen myths, and suggest a solution based on heathen ideals. Sigal Samuel, The Atlantic, 2 Nov. 2017 The intrigues of those heathen adversaries moreover qualified as badges of honor. Robert Dallek, The Hive, 7 Sep. 2017 Generally they were born the slaves of barbarian masters, untaught in all the useful arts and occupations, reared in heathen darkness, they were transferred to shores enlightened by the rays of Christianity. Joseph Goodman, AL.com, 25 May 2017
Noun
In the years after the Civil War, both Republicans and Democrats portrayed the Chinese arriving on the Pacific Coast as an invading horde, a heathen, unassimilable people. Jeannie Suk Gersen, The New Yorker, 6 Nov. 2022 This evening, the enlightened, Christian Americans celebrate a heathen custom, which is hoary with age, having descended from the old Greeks. San Diego Union-Tribune, 30 Oct. 2022 That behavior was induced by Balaam, the heathen prophet hired by Balak, king of Moab, to curse the Jews. Rabbi Avi Weiss, Sun Sentinel, 18 July 2022 To a heathen media person, Votto is the gift that keeps on giving. Paul Daugherty, The Enquirer, 18 Aug. 2021 The war against the U.S.S.R. lasted nearly a decade, during which the United States and Saudi Arabia funded a campaign to frame the conflict as one between Islam and the heathen communists. Washington Post, 13 Aug. 2021 In addition, both leaders rely on sorcerers – in the case of Pharaoh, the chartumim (magicians); in the case of Balak, the heathen prophet Balaam – to achieve their horrific goal. Rabbi Avi Weiss, sun-sentinel.com, 21 June 2021 Many perceived the Chinese to be a heathen race, unassimilable and alien to the American way of life. Michael Luo, The New Yorker, 22 Apr. 2021 It has been denounced by other heathen religious groups for its views. John Reinan, Star Tribune, 30 Apr. 2021 See More

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

Word History

Etymology

Adjective

Middle English hethen, from Old English hǣthen; akin to Old High German heidan heathen, and probably to Old English hǣth heath

First Known Use

Adjective

before the 12th century, in the meaning defined at sense 1

Noun

before the 12th century, in the meaning defined at sense 1

Time Traveler
The first known use of heathen was before the 12th century

Dictionary Entries Near heathen

Cite this Entry

“Heathen.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/heathen. Accessed 5 Dec. 2022.

Kids Definition

heathen

noun

hea·​then
ˈhē-t͟hən
plural heathens or heathen
1
: a person who does not know about and worship the God of the Bible : pagan
2
: an uncivilized person
heathen adjective
heathendom
-dəm
noun
heathenish
-t͟hə-nish
adjective
heathenism
-ˌniz-əm
noun

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