Word of the Month: Jeremiad

David Zapatka

Dear friend and Wisdom Seeker moderator, Ellen Engel, suggested the word jeremiad for this month’s WOTM.

Jeremiad: noun jer·e·mi·ad | ˌjer-ə-ˈmī-əd, -ˌad 1. a prolonged lamentation or complaint 2. a cautionary or angry harangue. 3. a long, literary work, usually in prose, sometimes in verse, where the author bitterly laments the state of society and its morals in a serious tone of sustained invective and while prophesying society’s imminent downfall.

Origin and Etymology: French jérémiade, from Jérémie Jeremiah, from Late Latin Jeremias

First Used: 1780.

The word jeremiad comes from the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah, who believed he was called by God to prophesy that Israel would be destroyed in consequence for their failure to keep the Mosaic covenant.

Today’s jeremiads can take the form of poems, songs, novels, speeches, articles, and even movies. They can concern both spiritual and secular matters.

Jeremiads typically speak of doom and gloom but also have a layer of optimism. They’re created to show the listener/reader how far they have fallen from the ideal in hopes of creating motivation to strive for improvement and a brighter day. Jeremiah himself foretold of Israel’s destruction then prophesied his people would rise from the rubble.

The jeremiad has a particularly significant place in American culture. Americans tend to think of themselves as special people with a special mission due to the way the country was created through a series of idealistic founding events. The country’s founding documents were written with promises and principles.

The Puritans were the first to conceive of the nation as a “city on the hill.” Jeremiad-type warnings about living up to this model accompanied this rhetoric from the beginning. In the same sermon where John Winthrop exhorted his fellow settlers to be a light to the world, he predicted “if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.”

The jeremiad has a long history as part of African-American culture. Reformers like Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King Jr. used it to illuminate the ways in which the Constitution’s guarantees of freedom and equality remained unfulfilled for blacks. They argued that things like the Civil War and the civic turbulence of the 1960s were a divine punishment for the sins of slavery and discrimination and would not cease until Americans “repented” and made things right.

Throughout American history around the world, the jeremiad has been employed by those on the left and on the right, by ministers and union leaders, gun rights defenders and civil rights activists, feminists and masculinists to decry those areas of culture in which they believe their people have fallen short. The jeremiad remains alive and well today.

Please submit your experiences with jeremiads, any thoughts on this month’s column or any word you may like to share along with your insights and comments to [email protected].