Word: alienate

Pronunciation: AY-lee-ə-nayt

Part of Speech: verb

Definition: make (someone) feel isolated or estranged

Source: Oxford Dictionaries


This is one of those words I learned in elementary school, and every time I see it, I’m reminded of my first impression of it. I’m sure I wasn’t the only student in the class who initially thought it was some sci-fi verb that meant something along the lines of “turn into an alien”. Of course, what I didn’t realize at the time was that the term “alien” has a much broader definition than the extraterrestrials we know so well from science fiction, and that root is the key to understanding what this verb really means.

To “alienate” someone is to figuratively push them away to the point where they feel isolated. The word comes from the Latin verb alienare, meaning “to estrange”. This word stems from the adjective alienus, which means “foreign” or “belonging to another”.

Additional meanings of the word “alienate” include the complementary definition “cause (someone) to become unsympathetic or hostile”, as well as the legal definition “transfer ownership of (property rights) to another person or group”. I myself much prefer the most common meaning mentioned above, but these extra ones are certainly worth noting too, especially if you write plenty of legal terms and/or emotionally heavy scenes. It’s up to you which definition you want to use; what matters most is that it happens exclusively among your characters, while you avoid “alienating” your readers with poor quality writing!

What are your thoughts on this word? Any suggestions for future “Word of the Week” featured words?

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