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shameless pleading






A broken clock chimes.

Dear Word Detective:  I am now on my fourth Dan Brown book, and if there is one thing I’ve learned, it’s that he likes to make up legit-sounding stories about lost origins of words and customs that have lost their intended meaning. That makes him a good story teller but not a very reliable source of information. In his latest book, The Lost Symbol, he talks about how the word “atonement” is actually “at-one-ment,” an ancient religious ideal of becoming one with God and the universe (I’m paraphrasing of course). Is there any truth to this tale of the origin of “atonement”? — Diana.

Fourth Dan Brown book? Awesome. I must admit that I’ve never read a Dan Brown book. I did try to watch a movie made from one of them on TV, but I am violently allergic to Tom Hanks and had to stop. Tom Hanks reminds me of my 7th grade science teacher so strongly that I start to smell formaldehyde when he appears on the screen. In any case, I found the part of the movie I did see implausible, because I have a cousin by marriage who is in the Knights Templar and he does nothing but watch football and play with his ferret.

I have, however, read a fair bit about Dan Brown books, specifically his somewhat idiosyncratic uses of the English language, about which grammarian Geoffrey Pullum at Language Log ( has had much to say. Then there’s the wee fact that referring to Leonardo da Vinci (literally “Leonardo of Vinci,” Vinci being his birthplace in Italy) as “da Vinci” in the title “The Da Vinci Code” is like referring to Jesus of Nazareth as “of Nazareth.”

But now onward to page 58 of The Lost Symbol, where a dude named Peter is attempting to convince his sister Katherine (who seems to sigh a lot) that most of the 20th century advances in theoretical physics were actually well known to the Ancients. (Too bad the Ancients didn’t take time out to notice penicillin, a comparatively mundane discovery that might have allowed more of them to live past age thirty, but I digress.) Thus, according to Peter, “entanglement theory” (a.k.a. quantum entanglement) in particle physics was “at the core of primeval beliefs,” reflected in the Ancients’ striving for “at-one-ment,” the state being “at one” with the universe. Pete goes on to explain that this “at-one-ment” is the root of our modern English word “atonement.”

It pains me a bit to say this, because I have no doubt that Dan Brown’s vast catalog of historical nonsense has included many etymological fables, but in this case he is essentially correct about the roots of “atonement.” The verb “to atone,” on which “atonement” is based, meaning “to reconcile, appease, unite,” is a contraction of the phrase “at one,” in which the “one” retains the pronunciation it had in the 16th century (which is probably why the word’s roots are not more obvious). As to the extent the Ancients may plausibly have played a role in this formation, “atone” in English appears to have been modeled on the Latin verb “adunare,” meaning “to unite,” a combination of “ad” (to, at) and “unum” (one).

The idea of everyone getting along is hardly recent, of course, and before “atone” appeared in the 16th century the adverbial phrase “at one” was commonly used in English to mean “in harmony” or “at peace.” But behind the scenes of “atone” (and the verbal noun “atonement,” which also appeared during the 16th century) is the sense of a dispute being settled, usually by the offender expiating a crime through some act of contrition or reparation. In modern usage we “atone for” a wrong that we have done; we do not simply “atone with” other people, joining hands and humming at the sky. That “making up for a wrong done” connotation sets “atonement” quite a ways apart from the gauzy “We are the universe” sentiment Brown ascribes to the Ancients.

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