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From French atavisme.



atavism (countable and uncountable, plural atavisms)

  1. The reappearance of an ancestral characteristic in an organism after several generations of absence.
    • 1904, Jack London, The Sea-Wolf, Chapter X:
      He was a magnificent atavism, a man so purely primitive that he was of the type that came into the world before the development of the moral nature. He was not immoral, but merely unmoral.
  2. The recurrence or reversion to a past behaviour, method, characteristic or style after a long period of absence.
    • 1938, Howard Phillips Lovecraft, Ibid:
      Upon the death of Theodoric in 526, Ibidus retired from public life to compose his celebrated work (whose pure Ciceronian style is as remarkable a case of classic atavism as is the verse of Claudius Claudianus, who flourished a century before Ibidus); but he was later recalled to scenes of pomp to act as court rhetorician for Theodatus, nephew of Theodoric.
  3. (sociology) Reversion to past primitive behavior, especially violence.
    • 1933, George Orwell, Down and Out in Paris and London, Chapter XXXVI, [1]
      I have even read in a book of criminology that the tramp is an atavism, a throw-back to the nomadic stage of humanity.
    • 1986, Doyle, Michael, Liberalism and World Politics:
      "...he traces the roots of objectless imperialism to three sources, each an atavism. Modern imperialism, according to Schumpeter, resulted from the combined impact of a "war machine", warlike instincts, and export monopolism".

Usage notes[edit]

Can be used both positively, to refer to past or ancestral characteristics, or pejoratively, referring specifically to past primitive characteristics.

A rather formal term; in popular speech the circumlocution skip a generation is often used for traits that occur after a generation of absence.

Derived terms[edit]


See also[edit]


  1. ^ atavism” in Unabridged,, LLC, 1995–present.