Word of the Day


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1. the grey powder that remains after something has burned

2. a tree with a smooth grey bark

View the full definition in the Macmillan Dictionary.

Origin and usage

The word ash comes from the Old English ‘æsc’ and is related to similar words in German and Dutch. The meaning referring to the grey-barked tree has been used in English since the 8th century, while the ‘grey powder’ meaning dates from the 10th century.


Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, the period  in the Christian Church that precedes Easter. It gets its name from the practice of marking the foreheads of churchgoers with ash as a sign of penitence. This association of ash with repentance is recorded in the idiom wear sackcloth and ashes, which means to behave in a way that shows you are sorry for something you have done. Something that rises from the ashes, meanwhile, is born again from the ruins of something that when before. The mythical phoenix was believed to live for 500 years before burning to death and being reborn from its own ashes.


“All things of grace and beauty such that one holds them to one’s heart have a common provenance in pain. Their birth in grief and ashes.”
(Cormac McCarthy)

Related words

cinders, embers, soot

beech, chestnut, oak

Browse related words in the Macmillan Thesaurus.


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