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From French atavisme < Latin atavus (ancestor).



atavism (countable and uncountable, plural atavisms)

  1. The reappearance of an ancestral characteristic in an organism after several generations of absence; a throwback.
    • 1904, Jack London, chapter 10, in The Sea-Wolf (Macmillan’s Standard Library), New York, N.Y.: Grosset & Dunlap, OCLC 169815:
      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.
    • 1926, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Land of Mist[1]:
      Hence on false premises was built up that belief in spirits or invisible beings outside ourselves, which by some curious atavism was re-emerging in modern days among the less educated strata of mankind.
  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 January 9, George Orwell [pseudonym; Eric Arthur Blair], chapter 36, in Down and Out in Paris and London, London: Victor Gollancz [], OCLC 2603818:
      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.



From French atavisme.


atavism n (uncountable)

  1. atavism