Word of the Day


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Liz Potter
Written by Liz Potter


the act of showing that you are sorry for doing something bad or wrong

View the full definition in the Macmillan Dictionary.

Origin and usage

The noun atonement was first used in the 1530s, when it meant ‘the feeling or condition of being at one with others’. It comes from the adverbial phrase ‘at one’ followed by the suffix ‘-ment’. The verb atone came later.


Although the noun atonement dates from the first part of the 16th century, it was not used with its current meaning until the early 17th century. It was at that point that it came to refer to the act of showing contrition, either for wrongs done to other people or for sins committed. Today is the Jewish festival of Yom Kippur, often referred to as the Day of Atonement. The verb atone is generally followed by the preposition ‘for’, and while atoning for sins is by far the most common collocation, there are other common collocates that refer to wrongdoing generally. These include mistakes, faults and errors, as well as crimes, misdeeds, wrongs, guilt and wrongdoing. People are also said to atone for their past, when these mistakes and misdeeds were committed.


“A person is, among all else, a material thing, easily torn and not easily mended.”
(Ian McEwan, Atonement)

“Neither money nor position can atone to me for low birth.”
(Anthony Trollope)

Related words

make amends, expiate, wear sackcloth and ashes

Browse related words in the Macmillan Thesaurus.

About the author

Liz Potter

Liz Potter

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