• pagan •
pay-gên • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Noun
Meaning: 1. A polytheistic person when contrasted with a monotheist, a heathen, non-Christian. 2. An atheist. 3. A hedonist.
Notes: This word may be used as a noun or an adjective, as in 'pagan ritual' or 'that ritual is pagan'. Pagan and heathen mean the same thing, but pagan usually refers to those nations that are more cultivated, such as the Greeks and Romans, and heathen to uncivilized idolaters, such as African tribes. We have several nouns to choose from: paganity, paganism, pagany, and the collective noun is pagandom. The diminutive adjective is paganish, and there is a verb, paganize.
In Play: The idea behind today's Good Word is "non-Christian": "Exotic ideas, like occult Nazism and pagan religions, continue to plague our political systems." But opportunities for creative metaphor abound: "Barbie Dahl's morning toilette resembles a pagan ritual of self-adoration."
Word History: This word came to English, via French, from post-classical Latin paganus "heathen", as opposed to Judeo-Christian. In classical Latin, it meant "rural, rustic", as opposed to urban, or "civilian, non-military". The meaning migrated from "rural" to "heathen" in post-classical Latin because idolatry lingered in rural districts longer than in urban districts. Paganus is based on pagus "country (district)" from the verb pangere "to fasten, fix, drive in". Pangere later came to mean "to write down, record". The meaning here shifted to "country, rural" due either to the habit of staking out a district or recording it in a register. Pangere also produced palus "stake", from which English took its pale "area of limitation", as 'beyond the pale', and palisade. It came directly from PIE pa(n)g- "to fasten", which we see in English fang, which meant "plunder, booty", a relative of German Fang "catch, grasp", as in Fangzahn "catch-tooth, fang". (PIE [p] became [f] in Germanic languages.) (Sue Gold is due our gratitude for her contribution of today's Good Word in a long series of suggestions she has sent us over the years.)
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