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!