The etymology of “Atonement”

I used to induce myself into a simmering wrath whenever I heard “Atonement” picked apart as “At-one-ment.” No way a word’s meaning could be deduced so simply in such a sophomoric fashion. It’s like saying the word “microphone” really means “micro” + “phone,” and micro means “small” and phone means telephone, so a microphone is a really small telephone. I felt it poor scholarship, and as a fan of etymology, I was offended, I’ll admit. Drove me crazy whenever anyone would define “Atonement” in that fashion.

Well, egg on my face because according to the Oxford English Dictionary:

[In use a verbal n. from atone, but apparently of prior formation, due to the earlier n. onement and the phrase ‘to be atone’ or ‘at onement.’ Cf. the following:
1533 Q. Cath. Parr Erasm. Comm. Crede 162 To reconcile hymselfe and make an onement with god.1599 Bp. Hall Sat. iii. vii. 69 Which never can be set at onement more.1555 Fardle Facions ii. xii. 298 The redempcion, reconciliacion, and at onement of mankinde with God the father.]

Well darn. Other sources mention that the term could have been coined by William Tyndale (oh, that rascally Tyndale!) , recognizing that he understood no direct translated from Hebrew or Greek into English had yet existed. How a scholar of languages invented a word with such a boring origin is beyond me, but because of its spiritual meaning, the word has transcended beyond its dull roots to take on a beautiful, uplifting, redeeming connotation.

So it turns out that those guys in Sunday School just might be right. Fine. I’ll accept it. However, to the missionary who took it further than usual and said that “-ment” in “atonement” means “with” in Greek or Latin, I may never forgive you in this life.

Edit: For an interesting short history lesson as far as this explanation’s existence in Mormon culture, look no further than this blog post “When did Atonement become At-onement?” Fascinating!

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11 Comments

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11 responses to “The etymology of “Atonement”

  1. Hans Stern

    Yes, I too gagged as you did and am surprised about your conclusion, but not seeing a better one have to concede, just as you did.
    HS

  2. I came across your blog searching for “etymology of atonement” in prep for a seminary lesson because I too was bothered every time I heard it. Add one more to your list.
    Thanks,
    Carson

  3. Heather

    Just like you and the others who commented, my husband and I went looking for the “true” etymology of the word and found your blog, among other reputable sources stating the same. I guess we’ll have to forgive those former Sunday School teachers. =)

  4. I was also surprised a few years back when I discovered that the folk etymology was actually the true etymology in this case. Tyndale is my hero.

  5. George Hilbert

    “However, to the missionary who took it further than usual and said that “-ment” in “atonement” means “with” in Greek or Latin, I may never forgive you in this life.”

    Good thing he doesn’t depend on you for forgiveness. haha (You just might forget him in the hereafter.)

  6. RJ Gibb

    Atone is most probably derived from the Latin adunare meaning “unite” plus the Latin unum meaning “one”. So even though atonement does mean “at-one-ness”, it does have a proper historic etymological paradigm.

    • Bob Martinez

      Is there an example of adunare before the 16th century? Adunare may have come from atone, as some words are “backed into” older languages rather than deduced from them.

  7. Cheryl Garland

    I, too, have been looking for the etymology of the word “atone”. It came about during some private Bible study time when I ran across the Aramaic word attun (number 861 in Strong’s Concordance) , a masculine noun meaning furnace and wondered if, perhaps, they had some connection. I continue to search as this would clear up some thinking I have on some of the scriptures, but have not found anything definitive.

  8. Robert B. Thompson
    Some years ago an individual informed me that the term “atonement” was related to the word “asphalt.” I prefer the definition “reconciliation.” Pethaps the two could be combined in the concept of a road leading back to the Father.

    • Ted

      I laughed for a minute but then looked up the etymology of asphalt and found that it does indeed have a possible Semitic linguistic origin so color me corrected. However, with that said, I’m a bit skeptical that these words are related in any way; the word for asphalt as a paving material for roads is more recent (mid-1800s) than atonement, whose usage we see around Tyndale’s time (1500s or so).

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