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Dear Word Detective: I’m trying to explain to my husband, who is not a native English speaker, what the meaning and usage of “anathema” is and why we use it without an article. Googling definitions doesn’t seem to help. It’s a great word, when needed, but I can’t explain how we use it, and why it seems to be the only noun I know that we use without an article. Can you help? This came up when he asked me to look up a film called Anatema (2006), a film in Albanian (my husband’s native language). — Peg.

I know the feeling. I used to have dreams every so often in which I’d be trying to explain, with no success, some weirdness of the English language (of which there are many) to someone. The dreams were pretty obviously based on my experiences doing live radio call-in shows, where whatever question the caller was asking was inevitably about something (a) I had written about in the recent past (good), but (b) I had completely deleted the details about from my noggin as soon as the column was done (very, very bad). To make matters worse, I had a distressing tendency to announce (a) before realizing (b), making myself sound like a total boob. To this day listening to anyone doing a radio call-in show fills me with anxiety.

“Anathema” is a strange little word, even by the inconsistent rules and standards of modern English. The first thing to remember about English, or any language, is that popular usage always trumps whatever rules we think should apply. If enough people do it for long enough, it becomes “correct,” or at least acceptable.

“Anathema” first appeared in print in English in the 16th century as an ecclesiastical term imported from the Latin “anathema,” which meant “something accursed, an evil or accursed person.” Oddly enough, the root of that Latin “anathema,” the Greek “anathema,” originally meant “something devoted to the gods” (from “ana,” up, plus “tithenai,” to place). Over time, however, the Greek “anathema” developed the negative meaning of “something or someone devoted to evil.” That meaning carried over into Latin, and then English, where today we use “anathema” to mean both someone who is literally cursed or excommunicated from a religious group or, more broadly, a thing or person greatly loathed or hated. For a fairly obscure word unchanged in form for a couple of thousand years, “anathema” remains remarkably popular today, and a search of Google News turns up more than 500 uses in the news today (“There was a time in America when such blatant hypocrisy was anathema to voters,” Boston Globe, 10/19/10?).

As that Boston Globe use illustrates, the odd thing about “anathema” is that, although it’s a noun, it is often (usually, in fact) used without the customary preceding article “an.” The Oxford English Dictionary classifies “anathema” as both a noun and a “quasi-adjective,” which neatly captures this usage. We use “anathema” as we might use a more conventional adjective such as “repulsive” or “abhorrent,” although we only use it in this way as the predicate of a verb (e.g., “Hypocrisy is anathema to voters,” not “His anathema hypocrisy angered voters”). Of course, we also use it as a normal noun with an article (“Bob’s drinking was an anathema to his boss”).

Why do we do such an odd, theoretically grammatically improper thing as using “anathema” without “an”? I can’t think of another word that is used in an exactly equivalent way, although some other nouns used as adjectives (e.g., “legion”) come close. The “an”-less use may have arisen because saying “an anathema” aloud is a bit awkward (and reminiscent of the great “Anne Elk” Monty Python sketch). It may have become popular because the literal sense of “anathema” as “accursed person or thing” has faded over time and all that’s left is an abstract noun that makes a better adjective. But whatever the original logic, we do it today because “anathema” without an article has become an accepted English idiom, and idioms are, conveniently for all of us, exempt from logic.

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