On the Use of “Nemesis”

By Maeve Maddox

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Chris Mentzer asks:
What is the difference between enemy and nemesis?  What is the purpose of using the word ‘Arch’ before each?

Nemesis is a stronger word than enemy.

Enemy is an unfriendly or hostile person. Nemesis is an avenging force.

In classical mythology Nemesis was the goddess of retribution. She punished both hubris (false pride) and wrongdoing. The goddess represents the idea that one cannot escape divine retribution.

Lowercase nemesis came into the language in 1597 with the meaning “retributive justice.”

One of my favorite Agatha Christie mysteries has the title Nemesis. In it Miss Marple is portrayed as Nemesis, tracking down a murderer many years after the crime was committed.

Conan Doyle called Professor Moriarty “the nemesis of Sherlock Holmes.” If it hadn’t been for the insistence of outraged readers, “The Final Problem” would have been the final Holmes story. It ends with Holmes and Moriarty plunging to their (presumed) deaths from the top of the Reichenbach Falls. Each was the other’s nemesis.

The prefix arch- is from Greek arkhos, “chief.” It is added to many words to indicate primacy. In the word archangel the prefix is pronounced [ark]. In other words the pronunciation is [arch].

archangel [ärk’ān’jəl]
archdiocese [ärch-dī’ə-sĭs]
archenemy [ärch-ĕn’ə-mē]
archdeacon [ärch-dē’kən]
archduke [ärch-dūk’, -dyūk’]

To place the prefix arch- in front of enemy is to strengthen the word. An archenemy is the most significant among several enemies.

Placing the prefix arch- in front of nemesis is to weaken what is a powerful word in no need of intensification. Both Nemesis and nemesis carry the connotation of implacability. One can defeat one’s enemies. Rarely can one escape one’s nemesis.

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5 Responses to “On the Use of “Nemesis””

  • Leisureguy

    Every writer should surely have a copy of Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of Synonyms: A Dictionary of Discriminated Synonyms With Antonyms and Analogous and Contrasted Words and spend some time each day reading it.

  • Maeve

    I followed your link. This looks like a book for the serious word lover.


  • Leisureguy

    I find that I use it often when I’m looking for just the right word. To take an example at random: Disinclined.

    I look it up, and I find that there’s a little cluster of words with similar but distinct meanings: disinclined, indisposed, hesitant, reluctant, loath, averse. Each is discussed (with examples) to distinguish it from the others.

    Analogous words are also listed for further exploration: Antipathetic, unsympathetic: opposing, resisting (see “resist”): balking, shying, boggling, sticking, stickling (see “demur”): objecting, protesting (see “object”, verb). And antonyms are provided as well.

    It’s an invaluable book if you like to use precisely the right word. As Mark Twain wrote, the difference between the right word and the word that’s almost right is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.

  • Daniel “Jester”

    Arch Enemy is also a Melodic Death Metal Band, not very good in my opinion.

  • lyndsay crawford

    The word arch originated around the mid-16th century, from the Greek word “arkhos” meaning most important, so it’s not just any enemy it’s the enemy that has the most important impact on your life!

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