Printable Version
Pronunciation: æ-tê-vis-tik Hear it!

Part of Speech: Adjective

Meaning: 1. Related to the reappearance of a genetic trait or a behavior pattern after several generations of absence. 2. Reverting to an earlier, more primitive type, related to a throwback.

Notes: An atavism is a trait that reappears after several generations of absence, usually caused by a chance recombination of genes, or the process of reappearing itself. An atavist is an organism that reflects such a genetic trait—a throwback. A child's blue eyes may be an atavism if the trait does not occur in either parent but does occur in a grandparent or great-grandparent.

In Play: Atavism visits us where we least expect it. Sitting around a camp fire in the evening might be considered an atavistic pleasure, assuming our ancient ancestors did the same. If it is true that we spring from aquatic ancestors, splashing in the bathtub might be atavistic—or just fun. Could building tree houses and swinging on ropes be expressions of some deep-seated atavistic urge? But this word feels most comfortable in hyperboles, when throwback and primitive just don't say it all: "Andy Bellam is so atavistic, I'm surprised he doesn't drag Portia around by the hair."

Word History: This Good Word is the adjective accompanying atavism which English traced from French atavisme, somehow missing the final E in the process. It is made up of -isme added to the root of Latin atav-us "grandfather, ancestor", made up of ad "to(ward)" + av-us "grandfather". This makes atavistic a kinsword of avuncular "uncle-like", from Latin avunculus "maternal uncle" based on the same root. The feminine variant of this word, avia "grandmother', seems to suggest that Roman grammas flew (they didn't). It did go on to become Portuguese aia "nursemaid", which Hindi borrowed as aya with the same meaning. (Today's Good Word flew in from the mind of the mysterious Gottsponer during a visit to the Alpha Agora.)

Dr. Goodword,

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