Stigma, Stigmas, and Stigmata

By Maeve Maddox

Another term associated with religious practice, but often used in other contexts, is stigma. The word has two plural forms: stigmas and stigmata.

Stigma derives from Greek and Latin words for the type of mark made by burning, like the brand placed on a slave, or by cutting. The word’s figurative meaning is “mark of censure or infamy.”

The plural stigmata appears in a line at the end of Saint Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. Paul says he “bears Christ’s stigmata in his body” (stigmata Domini Iesu in corpore meo porto). Paul is playing on different meanings of the word stigma. On the one hand, he is contrasting the marks and scars he has received by preaching Christianity as the valid equivalent of the mark/stigma of circumcision, which some Jewish Christians of his time insisted should be required of converted Gentiles. He is also using the word in the sense of the identifying mark of a slave, implying that he belongs to Christ, as a slave belongs to his master.

In modern religious usage, the Latin plural stigmata refers specifically to marks on the body that mimic the five wounds of Christ: nail holes in the hands/wrists and feet, and a wound in the side. Some reported stigmata include pain and marks around the head (from the crown of thorns) and on the back (from scourging).

The first documented stigmatic (person who exhibits Christ’s stigmata) was Francis of Assisi:

The saint’s right side is described as bearing on open wound which looked as if made by a lance, while through his hands and feet were black nails of flesh, the points of which were bent backward.—New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia

A stigmatic who lived in the twentieth century and was studied by contemporary physicians was Pio of Pietrelcina (1887-1968).

The figurative use of stigma is popular in the media to refer to the disapprobation displayed toward certain members of society or to characteristics felt to be socially disreputable. Used in this sense, the usual plural is stigmas. Here are some examples of this use of stigma:

Now, in the 21st century, we still have a situation where the words “mental illness” have negative connotations, leading to stigma surrounding anyone diagnosed with mental illness.

In 1936, a bill was passed that made Texas the first state in the southwest to legally remove the stigma of illegitimacy from birth records.

It is important to understand stigma in India, given its varied culture and mixture of rural and urban populations.

The verb is to stigmatize:

Afflicted individuals and racial or national groups have been stigmatized because of perceptions about highly contagious, difficult-to-cure diseases.

[This book] is a great overview of how romance novels (and their readers) have been stigmatized for centuries.

How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored

An error in the use of stigma is the redundancy of following it with the word mark:

There is a stigma mark attached to being Aboriginal.
I would think that if anyone needs a stigma mark, it is them.

Note: The noun stigma has other meanings in scientific contexts.

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1 Response to “Stigma, Stigmas, and Stigmata”

  • Brendan

    Slightly off-topic but I would be interested in views on the use of quoted speech. Example from the article:
    Paul says he “bears Christ’s stigmata in his body” (stigmata Domini Iesu in corpore meo porto)

    The Latin words shown actually translate as “I bear the stigmata of the Lord Jesus in my body”, i.e. not “in his body”.

    Is is ok to change the words within the quotation marks? Would it not be preferable to say: “Paul says he bears Christ’s stigmata in his body” (without quotation marks), especially given that reference has already been made to his letter)?

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