Word of the Day

Ash Wednesday

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Liz Potter
Written by Liz Potter


the first day of Lent

View the full definition in the Macmillan Dictionary.

Origin and usage

The term Ash Wednesday has been used in English since the 13th century. The Ash part is a reference to the practice of sprinkling ashes on the heads of worshippers as a mark of penitence.


Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of the penitential period of Lent in the Christian church that leads up to Easter. Ash has more than one meaning. As well as the grey powder that is left after something has been burned, it is the name of a tree with hard timber and smooth grey bark, as well as the wood of that tree. Ash trees are under threat across Europe from a fungal disease called ‘ash dieback’ for which there is no treatment and which is expected to kill between three-quarters and nine-tenths of all ash trees across the UK. The adjective ashen refers to a pale appearance caused by distress or illness, while the expression to wear sackcloth and ashes takes us back to Ash Wednesday, because it means to show repentance for something you have done.


“Love. Of course, love. Flames for a year, ashes for thirty.”
( Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, The Leopard)

“The ash grove, how graceful, how plainly ’tis speaking;
The wind through it playing has language for me.”
(John Oxenford, based on a Welsh folk song)

Related words

charcoal, cinders, embers

Browse related words in the Macmillan Thesaurus.

About the author

Liz Potter

Liz Potter

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