Where does the word “stigma” come from and What does stigma mean?

Greek slaves, on the whole, were treated leniently. But they were usually captives taken as a result of warfare, and it was but natural that escape was eagerly sought.

If they did not succeed, however, they were returned to their owners and, to make further attempts to escape more difficult, they were branded upon the forehead, usually by a hot iron, but sometimes with a tattooed mark.

Such brand or mark was called stigma, a word borrowed by the Romans for a similar mark.

The Greeks used the letter “phi”, initial of pheutikos, fugitive; the Roman mark was the letter “F,” which might designate either fur, for a slave branded as a “thief,” or fugitivus, for a “fugitive.”

Sometimes a black coloring substance was put in the wound to make the mark more prominent.

In Rome, a person so marked was said to be literatus, that is, “lettered,” a term that later designated a person well educated.

From the practice of branding slaves the meaning of the word stigma extended to embrace any mark or sign of shame or disgrace.

About Karen Hill

Karen Hill is a freelance writer, editor, and columnist. Born in New York, her work has appeared in the Examiner, Yahoo News, Buzzfeed, among others.

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