The main definitions of the noun anathema are (1) a detested person or thing, and (2) a formal ecclesiastical ban. The term comes directly from Latin, where it meant a doomed offering. It is most often used to denote someone or something that is reviled by a particular group. It conventionally functions a mass noun, so it does not take an article. For example, he is anathema is more conventional than he is an anathema and he is the anathema.

Anathema is widely misused, sometimes as a noun and sometimes adjectivally, to describe obstacles, opposites, or things that oppose. For example, these writers use the word in ways that don’t correspond to its conventional definition:

[B]eing feminine in the workplace was anathema [an obstacle?] to getting ahead. []

Officialdom has always seemed anathema to [to oppose?] contemporary art, which seems to thrive in adversity. [Toronto Star]

But to deny one class of citizens the freedom to marry based on their sexual orientation is discriminatory – anathema [in opposition to?] to the great tradition of freedom and equal opportunity … [New York Daily News]

And these writers correctly use anathema to refer to something that is detested:

But that does mean that sometimes drivers have to slow down, which is anathema to many Americans. [Forbes]

He has had to account for his former support for a cap-and-trade anti-pollution plan, which is anathema to conservative voters. [Telegraph]

But even if that wasn’t the case, the concept of being idle is anathema to him. [Sydney Morning Herald]

10 thoughts on “Anathema”

  1. I think the second two “wrong” examples are just using the second definition creatively. “Officialdom” is banned in the society of contemporary art, and denying rights is banned in an equal opportunity society.

    • I agree with this, it seems that in the last two examples the writers are anthropomorphizing the concepts of contemporary art and the tradition of freedom to take on the human characteristic of being able to detest something. So, contemporary art detests officialdom, therefore officialdom is anathema to contemporary art.

  2. This is the possibility of using the word “ananathema”, meaning without or not anathema or revile. For example: “He wished only to be ananathema to mankind.”, meaning he wished no harm or malice toward mankind, but neither wished to be a force of good.

  3. Seems like its usage fits better as an absolute adjective. This usage would fit both definitions. For definition one, it seems to work when ‘detestable’ could go in its place, and for definition two, I like to imagine replacing anathema with the word ‘verboten’, because it seems like the only modern use for “ecclesiastic bans” would need to be sarcastic.


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