Merriam-Webster Word of the Day: Gravamen

The Merriam-Webster Word of the Day is gravamen. Read on for what it means, how it’s used, and more.

What It Means

Gravamen is a formal word that refers to the significant part of a complaint or grievance.

// The gravamen of Walter’s letter to the editor was that the newspaper frequently reports on the school system’s failures but rarely covers its successes and improvements.

GRAVAMEN in Context

“The only thing worse than living under a totalitarian Communist regime is outliving one. That seems to be the half-serious gravamen of ‘The Interim,’ a novel published in 2000 by the East German writer Wolfgang Hilbig (1941-2007) and now translated into supple, vivid English by Isabel Fargo Cole. It’s not a completely absurd grievance. Not everyone does well with the kind of freedom afforded by the free market.” — Caleb Crain, The New York Times, 2 Nov. 2021

Did You Know?

Gravamen is not a word you hear every day (even rarer is gravamina, the less expected of its two plural forms; gravamens is the other), but it does show up occasionally in modern-day publications. It comes from the Latin verb gravare, meaning “to burden,” and ultimately from the Latin adjective gravis, meaning “heavy.” Fittingly, gravamen refers to the part of a grievance or complaint that gives it weight or substance. In legal contexts, gravamen is used to refer to the grounds on which a legal action is allowed or upheld as valid. (The word is synonymous with a legal use of gist not found outside technical contexts). Gravis has given English several other heavy words that throw their weight around more frequently, including gravitygrieve, and the adjective grave, meaning “important” or “serious.”

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