‘Stigma’ – Where the Word Comes From and What it Means.

PoetsIN is all about words. Whether they are written or spoken, they are fundamental to everything we do; empowering people who are struggling with their mental health through workshops and a safe community.

We use terminology and phrases about mental health day in and day out – but what of their origins? That’s why we are starting a series of etymology articles with the word ‘Stigma’; something attached to mental health and quintessential to our quest in speaking openly about what ails us.

Our first anthology, Stop the Stigma is available now. Click to buy.

Words are powerful things. Mystics[i] have argued for hundreds of years that the world is made up of words. Whether or not we believe that words are the building blocks of everything that is, we can all agree that the power words have within them is often hidden in the origins of the words themselves. We often take the words we use for granted. This is especially true of words that are loaded with an emotional content, or when words seem to be aimed at us as if they were weapons. And in situations like these, it is not unusual that we respond to the emotional content of the message sent, without fully understanding the vehicle of its delivery.

The word “stigma” derives directly from two almost identical words in both Latin and Greek. In Greek, the letters look like Greek: στίγμα[ii], each of which, in order, is equivalent to the Latin and English letters. It sounds a lot the same too. Although if you hum the ‘g’ and ‘m’, in Greek and look very stern, you’ll be more convincing. The root word for the Greek noun, is probably the verb στίζω, “stizo” or “I mark”.   Although the word in Latin and Greek seems less versatile than its English cousin and cognate “stick,” both words can refer to poking, puncturing and (especially) branding. While stick has nearly 6 entire pages devoted to it in the Oxford English Dictionary[iii] (940-946[iv]); “Stigma” has a mere column and a half, beginning on page 954 and continuing to the middle of the first column on 955. Although like so many words on loan from Latin or other languages, the use of the word has become quite specific.

Stigma, as applied to specifically physical marks (from the original meaning) is almost always encountered in the plural form, “stigmata”. Why, you ask, is “stigmata” a plural form of “stigma?” Stigma, and stigmata are both Latin loan words in English, so they have retained their Latin forms. There is an English plural form too, “stigmas”; in this case, “stigmas” follows the English rules of adding an “s”—which makes no sense in Latin. “Stigmas” and “stigmata” cannot be used interchangeably. Stigmas are actual brands, scars in an archaic use of the word, or similar, imagined or metaphorical marks, in a contemporary use of the word.  

A very specific, religious association to the physical wounds suffered by Jesus.

“Stigmata” in English, carries with it a very specific, religious association to the physical wounds suffered by Jesus at the crucifixion; and sometimes experienced ecstatically or perhaps hysterically by Saints, like Francis of Assisi, or lay people under circumstances that cannot easily be explained.  The last or most recent case of the stigmata that I could find was that of Father James Bruse of Virginia in the U.S., in 1991. Church authorities at the time, advised caution, but saw neither harm nor ecclesiastical significance in the events, so the matter was never elevated to anything much beyond the reports of statues weeping blood in Fr. Bruse’s presence and a noticeable increase in the numbers of faithful attending mass. Should your hands, feet and side begin to bleed as you are reading this, you should consult a doctor first, then your priest or vicar. 

Stigma, on the other hand, is a much more commonly used word and it carries with it various negative, secular meanings. The word stigma may be applied in allegorical or metaphorical ways, to experiences or conditions that are not seen as physical marks but are intuited or surmised. For example, a “social stigma” is not always readily observable, one must instead be alerted to, or made aware of, its existence.  It is because of this curious fact about the way the word works, that we need to look more deeply into the etymological origins of the word and the way it has been used in the past.

Originally, in the 17th Century references quoted in the OED, a stigma seems to have been, specifically the mark left by branding a person with a hot iron. Branding with a hot iron was a fairly common punishment in the 17th Century; and one who bore the “stigma” or scar from that hot iron, was said to have been “stigmatized”.  The word could also be used to refer to tattoos or the practice of tattooing; but this use seems to have been rare. The one reference given in the OED, is to the Picts, an ancient tribe in the North and especially Scotland, that practiced both ritual branding and tattooing (956). [Julius Caesar was so afraid of the Picts, when he encountered them, he drew a line (fortified later as Hadrian’s wall) and warned others who might try to conquer them, to not bother. Caesar described them as very tall, red-haired brutes who painted their bodies blue and ran into battle naked.  Notwithstanding…. back to our story….]

The word could also be used to refer to tattoos.

 There are other interesting examples given in the OED entry, too: one man was branded with an “S” and an “L” one letter on either cheek, for “seditious” and “libeler”; a couple was branded, each on the forehead with the letter “A” for “adultery”; and in a third, even more curious case, a man was branded on his forehead with “a letter of his own name,” the crime in that case was not mentioned.  There are 19th century references, that seem to make even more sweeping, general associations: “Doomed to be, like the seed of Cain, a stigmatized race” (956).  It is interesting to me, at least, that the crimes of sedition and libel—saying unflattering or outrageous things about someone or some institution carried with it the same penalty as adultery.

Generally speaking, sedition and libel, as a matter of law, emerge from the common law, whereas adultery is much more a matter of laws based on religion. Sedition is an old fashioned almost obsolete word, that generally means speaking out against an authority. In the past, sedition as a crime almost always included at least the threat of violent action against the State, the King, or the Church. Libel is usually a crime associated with attacks made in writing, something defamatory about someone else. I think the distinctions we make now between libel and slander may be recent—but I am too lazy to look it up to be sure….

To the medieval mind, God brings men and women together in marriage; but marriage was a formal contract among the nobles and upper classes—so an affair, having sex with someone else’s wife, was a sin against God and property laws; the woman’s crime was a crime against God, man (her husband) and the State. The word “husband” means “keeper” and refers not to love, but to ownership. It is interesting to me, too, that by the 17th Century in all the Romance languages[v] there is a version of the word “stigmatized” with specific reference to the practice of branding as a punishment for various crimes. We might be tempted to conclude that wherever the Roman Catholic Church had enough influence to mete out punishments like branding, the practice was common and the effects on the population were widespread.

Having sex with someone else’s wife, was a sin against God.

What we can conclude, with confidence, is that stigmas are imposed on people by other people; and the intent of those who stigmatize others is to cause harm. “Branding” with a red-hot iron may no longer be practiced as a punishment, but the emotional scars caused by social stigmas, are real and convincing reminders of the power of words. The emotional content of certain words is seared into us as if it could leave a scar visible to everyone; and this is true whether we use these words in reference to ourselves, or others use them to label or “brand’ us. [vi]

Thanks so much to Kelly Knox for this detailed and extremely interested look at the meaning and history behind the word we are battling against. There’s so much more to come.


[i] Specifically, Jewish, Christian and Gnostic Kabbalists.

[ii] Sigma, Tau, Iota, Gamma, Mu, Alpha.

[iii] The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary: p-z. II, Oxford University Press, 1971.

[iv] The page notations are for convenience. When you read the Compact Edition, the pages have been reproduced micrographically with the page numbers from the larger version included. For edition page reference –those that refer to the current volume, pages 940-46 are 3047-3039; pages 954, 955 and 956 are all on p 3051.

[v] Romanian may be an exception; it is not specifically mentioned in the OED. The languages that are mentioned, are French, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese.

[vi] In other words, if someone asks me if I am married and I answer “no, I’m divorced,” studies show that at least half of the population will form a less than favorable opinion about me.  What is worse, even before I know for sure how the other person feels about my status as a divorced person, it is extremely likely that I will feel ashamed, to admit that I am divorced.

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