[at-uh-viz-uh m]


  1. the reappearance in an individual of characteristics of some remote ancestor that have been absent in intervening generations.
  2. an individual embodying such a reversion.
reversion to an earlier type; throwback.

Origin of atavism

1825–35; < Latin atav(us) remote ancestor (at-, akin to atta familiar name for a grandfather + avus grandfather, forefather) + -ism
Related formsat·a·vist, noun Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2019

Examples from the Web for atavism

Historical Examples of atavism

  • I used the word 'atavism' to mean a reversion to the primitive.

    Measure for a Loner

    James Judson Harmon

  • Can I explain, can anyone explain, the mysterious vagaries of atavism?

  • Altogether a good deal of nonsense has been written about atavism.


    William J. Robinson

  • I would not omit to mention also the law of Atavism, in this discussion of heredity.

  • For a short moment he hesitated but atavism and necessity were against him.

    Skippy Bedelle

    Owen Johnson

British Dictionary definitions for atavism



the recurrence in a plant or animal of certain primitive characteristics that were present in an ancestor but have not occurred in intermediate generations
reversion to a former or more primitive type
Derived Formsatavist, nounatavic (əˈtævɪk), adjective

Word Origin for atavism

C19: from French atavisme, from Latin atavus strictly: great-grandfather's grandfather, probably from atta daddy + avus grandfather
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012

Word Origin and History for atavism

1833, from French atavisme, attested by 1820s, from Latin atavus "ancestor, forefather," from at- perhaps here meaning "beyond" + avus "grandfather," from PIE *awo- "adult male relative other than the father" (see uncle).

Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2010 Douglas Harper

atavism in Medicine




The appearance of characteristics that are presumed to have been present in some remote ancestor; reversion to an earlier biological type.
Related formsata•vist′a•vistic adj.
The American Heritage® Stedman's Medical Dictionary Copyright © 2002, 2001, 1995 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company.