The Grammarphobia Blog

Why is anathema such a nasty character?

Q: Dictionaries list “anathema” as a noun, yet they often give sample sentences in which it’s used as an adjective! So is my enemy anathema to me? Or is he an anathema to me? Or can he be both?

A: Your enemy can be both. Either way, he’s bad business.

The Oxford English Dictionary describes “anathema” as a noun and a “quasi-adj.” that English adopted in the 16th century from ecclesiastical Latin and Greek.

As a noun, it originally meant “anything accursed, or consigned to damnation.” As a noun acting adjectivally, it meant “accursed, consigned to perdition.”

In fact, the OED‘s first published reference for the word, from the Tyndale Bible of 1526, appears to use it adjectivally: “Yf eny man love not the lorde Jesus Christ, the same be anathema maranatha.”

(The term “maranatha” here comes from an Aramaic phrase that contemporary scholars interpret as “Come, O Lord!” or “Our Lord has come,” according to the OED.)

In Greek, anathema originally meant “a thing devoted,” but came to mean “a thing devoted to evil, an accursed thing.”

In church Latin, it referred to an excommunicated person or the curse of excommunication.

Over the years, the noun “anathema” has referred to a formal act of damnation, a cutting off of someone from communion, a denunciation of heresy, and a curse, either ecclesiastical or secular.

By the mid-17th century, according to the OED, the noun was being used predicatively—that is, as a predicate adjective—to mean “loathsome, repugnant, or extremely objectionable” to someone.

The dictionary’s first citation for this usage is from Hesperides, Robert Herrick’s 1648 collection of poems:

Who read’st this book that I have writ,
And can’st not mend but carp at it;
By all the Muses! thou shalt be
Anathema to it and me.

In other words, an enemy, literary or otherwise, can be anathema to you!

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