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  • Paul Anthony Jones


(n.) someone who does not follow rules, or refuses to bow to authority

An agonyclite is someone who refuses to obey the law, or follow the rules followed by everybody else.

Pronounced “ah-gon-uh-klyte” (kinda rhyming with McCarthyite), this is a puzzling looking word, no question. But you’ll actually know all the elements that are being pulled together here. (And no, it has nothing to do with agony.)

The prefix, a–, is a Greek root used to form words bearing some sense of an absence, a loss or more broadly, some kind of negation. That’s the same a– you’ll see in words like amoral, amnesia, amnesty (literally an ‘intentional overlooking’), and even amethyst.

The –gon– in the middle here is the same root that’s found in words like trigonometry and polygon: it comes from the Greek word for an angle or corner, or by extension, a knee. (More on that in a minute.) And the –clite ending comes from the Greek verb klinein, meaning ‘to bend’, or ‘slope’. Despite appearances, then, that’s the same root as in words like incline, as well as a handful of less familiar fare like clinomania (a desire to stay in bed), and both matroclinous and patroclinous (resembling either the mother or father more than the other).

Bundle all three of those elements together, and you end up with something that effectively means ‘not bending the knee’. And herein lies the tale.

The Agonyclites were first recorded in an eighth century guide to the heretical peoples of Europe and the Holy Land compiled an early Christian theologian, St John of Damascus. In an essay entitles On Heresies (in which he became one of the first Christian writers to discuss Islam), St John discussed a contemporary cult of European Christians who refused to follow the church’s rules regarding kneeling, and so remained standing to pray instead. In the relatively early days of the Christian faith, this understandably proved a major talking point, and ultimately the name of this cult—who are little known or discussed outside of St John’s work—lived on long after their apparent rule-breaking was no longer considered quite so contentious.

It took almost a millennium for the Agonyclites to find their way into our language, but in the mid 1600s English writers picked up on the studies of the early Christian scholars like St John, and began discussing them and their work more openly.

And from there, the word agonyclite gained a looser secondary sense, referring to anyone at all who refuses to follow the established rules, or who—quite literally, as it happens—refuses to bow or bend to authority.

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