The Grammarphobia Blog

Catharsis, anyone?

Q: Can something be “a catharsis” or is it always “cathartic.” Example:  “I draw because, more than anything, it is a catharsis.”

A: Something can be “a catharsis” or “catharsis” or “cathartic.” In fact, a bit of googling suggests that “it is a catharsis” is more popular than either “it is cathartic” or “it is catharsis.”

Here’s the Google scorecard: “it is a catharsis,” 898,000 hits; “it is cathartic,” 521,000; “it is catharsis,” 76,800.

Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged, defines “catharsis” in the sense you’re using it as “any purification or purgation that brings about a spiritual renewal or a satisfying release from tension.”

The dictionary gives this usage example: “these drawings served as a catharsis, relieving him of his burden of terrible memories, at the same time releasing hidden creative forces.” (The quote is from Eva Michaelis-Stern, a Jewish activist who helped rescue thousands of children from Nazi Germany.)

English borrowed the word from Latin, but the ultimate source is the Greek katharsis (a cleansing or purging).

When the word entered English in the early 19th century, it referred to the purging of body fluids and waste, the original meaning of the Greek term.

But by the mid-19th century, it was being used in reference to the purging of emotions, an idea introduced by Aristotle in his Poetics (circa 335 BC), which refers to purging pity and fear in tragedy through catharsis.

We’ll end with a not-so-cathartic exchange between two characters in D. H. Lawrence’s play Touch and Go (1920):

Anabel: “But I don’t WANT to hate and fight with you any more. I don’t BELIEVE in it—not any more.”

Gerald: “It’s a cleansing process—like Aristotle’s Katharsis. We shall hate ourselves clean at last, I suppose.”

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