The first thing to know about this word is that the stress is on the second syllable, and the th is voiceless. It thus sounds very much like the first four syllables of a mathematician.
When I look at it, it appears to me rather like a broad building with columns in its façade and a peaked roof just in the middle – not a clerestory; more like a low steeple, perhaps.
But then I notice the article right in the middle: the. And then I notice the articles in the beginning: an, a. It has all three articles stacked up, followed by ma, which might be a mother or might be the Mandarin particle indicating a question: so it could be an – a – the – ma, speaking of an, no, a, no, the mother; or it could be an, a, the ma? – i.e., asking if it’s an, a, or the.
Small wonder that there might be confusion. This word is in fact typically anarthrous. That is to say, it usually takes no article. It is treated as a mass object. Like garbage, junk, trash, etc.: “Such ideas are anathema to us.” And it can refer to a thing or idea, or to a person (“Such a person is anathema”), or to the act of declaring that the thing or person is anathema – in this last sense, it is countable: “He pronounced an anathema.”
Who or what would be anathema? Most classically, a heretic meriting excommunication. If you look in the Canons of the Council of Trent, you will find that, for instance, anyone who objects to the mass is to be anathema, and of course it follows that objections to the mass are also anathema. I am tempted to say that this is why anathema is a mass object.
But actually the canon law formula, stated quite tidily by Jimmy Akin as “If anyone says . . . <INSERT SOME AWFUL HERESY HERE> . . . let him be anathema,” imports a Greek word into the Latin. That “let him be anathema” is, in Latin, anathema sit (the sit is the third-person singular subjunctive and is used for a third-person imperative, and is gender-neutral), but that word anathema is taken undigested from Greek. It’s sort of like how we borrow food terms from other languages and handle them with kid gloves. “If anything be pickled vegetables cut in small dice and mixed with a small amount of light sauce, let it be antipasto.” The Greek phrase that anathema sit translates is ἀνάθεμα ἔστω, anathema esto. So we have an English word borrowed directly from Latin, which borrowed it directly from Greek, and Latin preserved the Greek phrasing undigested, and English preserved the lack of article from the Latin (although Latin used articles less often than English does).
And where does that Greek phrase come from? The apostle Paul’s letter to the Galatians, first chapter, eighth verse: ἀλλὰ καὶ ἐὰν ἡμεῖς ἢ ἄγγελος ἐξ οὐρανοῦ εὐαγγελίζηται [ὑμῖν] παρ’ ὃ εὐηγγελισάμεθα ὑμῖν, ἀνάθεμα ἔστω. Which means, “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned” (that’s the New International Version translation).
So that’s what anathema means? It would be accurate to say it means ‘accursed’ or ‘consigned to damnation’ or ‘excommunicated’ (Jimmy Akin explains helpfully that anathema sit in canon law does not automatically excommunicate a person; the person must be formally excommunicated in a rather solemn ceremony involving candles being thrown onto the floor, and the person can be formally reconciled if he or she recants – but also, it isn’t in use at all anymore; it was abolished in 1983). In more general use, it tends to mean ‘utterly unacceptable’: “Although Comic Sans is anathema to most graphic designers, the commemorative album for Benedict XVI posted by the Vatican is done entirely in that very font.”
In its sense, then, anathema is a nasty word, and in common usage it is typically constrained into a particular phrasing: X is anathema to Y. It looks like an adjective, and yet dictionaries tell us it is a noun. I suspect that in the minds of many users it is actually an adjective, but that’s not the official edict. One must take it as an article of faith that it faithfully has no article.
Its origin is not actually nasty. The Greek word ἀνάθεμα does mean ‘an accursed thing’, but it comes to that as ‘a thing devoted to evil’, and that is because in origin it just means ‘a thing devoted’ – that is to say, ‘a thing set up’ (up to the gods). The ana is the same as in anagram and anachronism (it means ‘up’) and the thema comes ultimately from the verb τιθέναι tithenai ‘put, set, place’ (and yes, it is related to our word theme). So somehow from ‘set up’ it has come to mean a version of ‘sent down’.
I think Anathema would make a good name for a heavy metal group (I do not mean like actinide and lanthanide). And in fact there is a band of that name who formerly fit into the doom and death metal genres, but now play music that is more in the alternative and progressive genres. Which is kind of funny, because some of the songs they’re playing now would be anathema to many death metal fans. (I leave it to you to YouTube them or not.)
But how does the word feel to you? Iva Cheung, who suggested tasting this word and who has posted a cartoon about it on her blog, finds that the open vowels and the reminiscence of the pattern in ethereal make the word more pleasant in form than in sense. I find that it has a taste of anthem, which has a positive solemnity to it, but I find also that under the influence of its sense the word seems to hiss like a fork-tongued demonic creature – funny how nasty a sound can seem to be if you wish to hear it in that light. The sounds are all so soft, but the sentence so harsh: like the rustling of silk as a robed hand is raised to point to the door through which a person is to be ejected.
Such a contradictory word. And such a word of contradiction and malediction. But your judgement of its flavour is entirely up to you: you are the anathematician.