Neil Gaiman

anathema

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This week I’ve been bingeing* on the TV show ‘Good Omens’, a story of angels and demons, Armageddon and the Antichrist (with jokes). It’s based on a book by the late great Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, my second-favourite author (a title I’m sure he’d appreciate). There are lots of imaginatively named characters in ‘Good Omens’, including Newton Pulsifer, Agnes Nutter and Sister Mary Loquacious of the Chattering Order of St Beryl. But my favourite is Anathema Device – so her first name gets the dubious honour of being my word of the week.

The meaning of ‘anathema’ that you’re probably familiar with is ’something or someone that one vehemently dislikes’. As in ‘people who say “could of” instead of “could have” are anathema to Emma’. But it has a second, less well-known (to me at least) meaning which plays into the story of ‘Good Omens’ (and which I’m sure Messrs Pratchett and Gaiman were well aware of). An anathema is also a ‘formal curse by a pope or a council of the Church, excommunicating a person or denouncing a doctrine’. Which is a fancy way of saying the top Catholic dude is sending you straight to the hot place downstairs (can you tell I went to convent school?). Whoah. Ain’t no Hail Marys gonna get you out of that one.

The etymology

As per usual, we nicked the word ‘anathema’ from Latin which itself nicked it from Greek. Weirdly, the Greek root actually means the opposite – it literally means ‘placed on high, suspended, set aside’. I realise this doesn’t sound like the opposite of eternal damning, but the being-up-high-ness meant it was closer to god/the gods/your deity of choice. So it came to mean a divine offering. At some point (the internet doesn’t seem to know when or why), it changed to mean something bad or cursed (see also previous word of the week ‘egregious’, which now means the total opposite of what it did originally).

Interestingly (maybe), ‘anathema’ is one of the few nouns we use without an article i.e. we don’t say ‘an anathema’. I don’t know why not, sorry – maybe because ‘an anathema’ is a bit of a tongue twister? Oh, and because English is wonderfully illogical and confusing, anathema is also an adjective, as we can use it to describe a noun e.g. ‘rain is anathema to my dog’. Except it goes after the verb, not before. Presumably to get around this, the OED describes it as a ‘quasi-adjective’ which seems like a big old cop out to me but never mind.


* I spent quite a long time while writing this post trying to work out how to spell ‘bingeing’ – I was torn between this and ‘binging’. Turns out I’m not the only one, and some not-very-in-depth research reveals that either is fine, despite both getting an angry red underline as I write this. I’ve gone with ‘bingeing’ because ‘binging’ sounds like something the microwave does when it’s finished.