• A person or thing that is hated or ostracized to the highest degree possible

  • An official curse placed on a person (usually in conjunction with excommunication) by a Christian authority; also, a person who has received such a curse

  • A hateful damnation or curse; also, an object of such a curse


You hate some things, right? Getting sick, paper cuts, smelly garbage - nobody likes that kind of stuff. But as unpleasant as you may find minor annoyances like these, we're betting you don't consider them odious enough to curse them with every ounce of dislike you can muster. We don't mean to judge, of course; maybe you have some deep-seated psychological reason for seeing an ordinary irritation like burned toast or YouTube ads as abominations to be avoided at all costs. Otherwise, though, it's probably a little overdramatic to declare most of the little things we say we hate every day to be anathemas.

So why would it be an overreaction to say that some minor bother is anathema to you? It's because, in all ways it's used, anathema is an extremely powerful word, tied up to the strongest feelings of loathing people are capable of experiencing. In modern English, the word is usually used to refer to an object of this extreme hatred. This would be something that every last cell in your body finds totally revolting, something you despise so much that it pains you even to think about it. How you use the word, then, will depend on your priorities: for environmentalists, pollution and the destruction of natural resources are anathemas; on the other hand, mom jeans might be anathema to a fashion snob.

We use anathema pretty generally today, but half a millennium ago (and twice as long ago for the Latin version), it was more common to use the word to refer to an official curse placed on a person by an authority within the Catholic Church. No, not a spooky, supernatural, fun curse, or even a swear-word type of curse; this was an earthly, formal declaration that someone was unholy, an ecclesiastical undesirable beyond salvation. This type of anathema was usually issued in conjunction with excommunication, meaning that it would completely excise recipients from the Church community and, theoretically, prevent them from getting into Heaven. Historically, this version of anathema has also been used more generally to describe curses or marks of ultimate deplorability handed out by anybody for any reason. If you wanted, you could announce a personal anathema against the development of nuclear weapons, even if your lack of authority meant it wouldn't do any good.

Finally, just as the word can be used to describe a hateful curse, anathema can also refer to an object or recipient of such a condemnation. If you ever find yourself excommunicated by Pope Francis, you could, for better or worse, call yourself an anathema. As you might guess, this usage has a lot of overlap with the word's more popular meaning as just a thing that is generally despised.

If you have a sharp eye for grammar, you might be wondering why we haven’t always used the determiner “an” with anathema. Shouldn’t something you hate be an anathema? Since anathema is a noun, using it with “an” would be both perfectly correct and, more importantly, unlikely to confuse anyone. However, when used to refer to an object of loathing, anathema is more likely to be used without its two-letter friend, like an adjective. It’s as if anathema was describing something as “hated,” rather than renaming it as “something that is hated.” Even though the word acts like an adjective in these instances, grammarians always consider anathema a noun. Anathema is always accompanied by “an” when used to refer to a curse or cursed object.

Example: For a lifelong outdoorsman like Phil, city living was anathema.

Example: Murder didn't usually bother the mob boss, but he considered snitching anathema.

Example: Maybe there's less blaspheming going on these days, but the Catholic Church doesn't seem to issue that many anathemas any more.

Example: When we caught Gina cheating, we kicked her out of our Scrabble club with a well-deserved anathema.


The origin story of anathema is filled with a surprising number of twists and turns. The earliest version of the word was the classical Greek anathāma, which, formed from the roots ana (for "up," "on," or "up to") and tithennai (for "to put," "to place," or "to set"), meant "something offered up or dedicated," as to a divine entity or for a holy purpose. Sounds…very different from the word we know today, right? One theory proposes that the word was used to refer to "holy" weapons that were consecrated to be used in the name of a deity. To the people against whom they were being used, however, the weapons were obviously very bad, hated things, and those speakers associated the term with these negative meanings. As a result, the Ecclesiastical Greeks would use the word anathema to refer to "a damned or evil thing."

Latin would adopt anathema as a way of referring to both the punishment of excommunication and a person who had received such a punishment. Anathema would be first used in English in the 1520s to generally describe an object that was hated to an utmost degree.

Derivative Words

Derivative Words

Anathematize: This verb refers to the act of condemning something as abominable or detestable. It is conjugated as anathematizes, anathematized, and anathematizing.

Example: The politician's attempt to anathematize his opponents ended up casting him in an unfavorable light.

Example: When a leader anathematizes his objectors, he or she might come off as demagogic.

Example: Anathematized by the Pope himself, Betty hadn't stepped foot in a church in thirty years.

Example: Anathematizing things without trying to understand them could be a sign of immaturity.

Anathematization: This noun describes the process or act of cursing something as unholy or maximally undesirable.

Example: The atrocities of the holocaust have resulted in the anathematization of Hitler's image.

In Literature

From David Byrne's How Music Works:

In musical performances one can sense that the person on stage is having a good time even if they're singing a song about breaking up or being in a bad way. For an actor this would be anathema, it would destroy the illusion, but with singing one can have it both ways. As a singer, you can be transparent and reveal yourself on stage, in that moment, and at the same time be the person whose story is being told in the song.

In this passage, the former Talking Head uses anathema to say that contradictions between onstage emotions and the emotions in the pieces being performed are something considered unspeakably horrible by actors. Singers, Byrne claims, can embrace these contradictions instead of trying to avoid them.


  • You're completely anti to an anathema

  • Anathema: Anti Them Always

  • Anathema: ANgry AT THEM Always!


Hatred, Hate, Curse, Religion, Church, Enemy, Devotion, Evil

Bring out the linguist in you! What is your own interpretation of anathema. Did you use anathema in a game? Provide an example sentence or a literary quote.