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

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The Uses and Origins of Heathen and Pagan

Heathen is a dated term used primarily of someone who is not religious, or whose religion is not Judaism, Islam, or especially Christianity. It is also sometimes used disapprovingly of someone who is not cultured; this use is also dated.

In current use, pagan is most commonly used of someone who practices a contemporary form of paganism, such as Wicca, making the word synonymous with neo-pagan. But pagan also has meanings identical to those of heathen; in those uses it too is dated. Additionally, pagan has literary use referring to a nonreligious person who delights in sensual pleasures and material goods.

The origins of heathen and pagan are semantically similar. Heathen likely comes from a term for a country inhabitant—in particular, a “heath dweller.” The Latin source of pagan, paganus, originally meant “country dweller” or “civilian;” it was used at the end of the Roman Empire to refer to people who practiced a religion other than Christianity, Judaism, or Islam, and especially to those who worshiped multiple deities. It’s believed that the religious meanings of paganus 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.”

Examples of heathen in a Sentence

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

These examples are programmatically compiled from various online sources to illustrate current usage of the word 'heathen.' 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

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 21 Jun. 2024.

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
usually used disparagingly especially in the past
2
: an uncivilized person
usually used disparagingly especially in the past
heathen adjective
heathendom
-dəm
noun
heathenish
-t͟hə-nish
adjective
heathenism
-ˌniz-əm
noun

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