at·a·vis·tic \ˌa-tə-ˈvis-tik\


Today I’m in Berlin, Germany.  My cousin Yasmin and I were walking around near Unter den Linden when we stumbled across a warehouse that displayed and sold old opera costumes and props.  We spent a while walking around admiring the elaborate costumes, Baroque furniture, impressively liberal use of gold spray paint and some beautiful dark wood tables.  As we were leaving I saw a box of random junk and had a rummage.  I came across a non-descript piece of animal print fur.  Long and thin, it had three press-studs on it.  I couldn’t figure out what it was, so I hung it from the top of my pants and gave myself a tail.  I checked myself in the mirror and you know what?  It looked kind of cool.  Yasmin agreed.  Imagine if we had tails.  They would totally become decorative appendages.  They’d be pierced and shaved and tattooed and bejewelled.  The works.  We discussed the possibilities for a while.  Then with just a little reluctance I relinquished the tail and we left.

Tonight when we got home I decided to write about atavistic.  I first encountered atavistic in the context of cultural criticism.  I’ll come to that soon.  But first, when I searched online I discovered that its most common usage is actually biological – the recurrence of a trait or characteristic in an organism after several generations of absence.  For example a human tail.

No joke.

On occasion humans have been born with a vestigial tail or ‘coccygeal process’.


An atavistic occurrence refers to the re-emergence of something beyond which one has already evolved.  Perhaps a throwback to a previous generation.  It has been observed in many animals such as whales and chickens.  Coined in the 1830s, atavistic derives from the French ‘atavisme’ and the Latin ‘atavus’ meaning great-great-great grandfather or simply ancestor.

As I mentioned earlier, atavistic is used by cultural critics to refer to social and cultural reversions which hark back to the values or approaches of previous generations. In keeping with the Berlin theme, I would like to suggest that the Shoah (holocaust) was atavistic.  The objectives and methods of that heinous regime were inconsistent with the democracy that existed in Germany at the time.  They were also contrary to the equal rights for Christian and Jewish citizens which had been enshrined in Law.  In the wake of the First World War primal anxieties and prejudices were revived in the populace.  An atavistic phenomenon.

Another example from a bit closer to home would be the infamous 2005 Cronulla riots.  The racially inspired violence that occurred on December 4, 2005 was an animalistic reversion to tribe mentality.  Another kind of atavism.

On a more pleasant note, rad Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson recognised the importance of this lovely word.  He used it several times across his oeuvre, including in his classic ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’.

But it doesn’t end there!  The term atavistic regression was also used by Austrian psychiatrist Ainslie Meares to describe hypnosis because, according to her theory, hypnosis denotes a switching off of the higher functions of the mind, and reverting to a less evolved mental state.

Following on from this logic, I would like to suggest that a big night out on the turps could be described as atavistic.  Try it.  You’ve just slumped out of bed with a hangover.  Maybe it’s been a while since you had one.  You run into your housemate in the corridor and you mutter ‘last night was atavistic man’.  Later on you meet up with your friends and say by way of apology, ‘I was atavistic last night.’

When asked ‘how was your night?’ the response is ‘atavistic’.

I like it 🙂  And I can almost guarantee that this proud declaration that enough brain cells remain to use this lovely word to describe your condition will ease the pain of your hangover.

In peace and wordliness  🙂


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