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ma·ca·bre (mə-käbrə, mə-käb, -käbər)
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adj.
1. Upsetting or horrifying by association with death or injury; gruesome: "When Lucia describes [the saints'] torments, Jo sees a chorus of macabre dolls, most of them missing parts" (Nancy Reisman). See Synonyms at ghastly.
2. Constituting or including a representation of death.

[Ultimately from Old French (Danse) Macabré, (dance) of death, perhaps from alteration of Macabe, Maccabee, from Latin Maccabaeus, from Greek Makkabios.]

ma·cabre·ly adv.

Word History: The word macabre comes from the Middle French phrase Danse Macabré, "the Dance of Death," which was a popular subject of art and literature in the late Middle Ages. In representations of this dance, Death is shown leading people of all classes and walks of life to the same inescapable fate. John Lydgate is the first English author known to mention the Danse Macabré in English, in his work Macabrees daunce from around 1430. Lydgate's poem purports to be a translation of a French poem describing a group of famous painted murals of the Danse Macabré located in a cemetery in Paris. The original meaning of Macabré in the French term Danse Macabré is not known with any certainty, but it may be an alteration of Old French Macabe, "a Maccabee." The Maccabees were Jewish martyrs honored by a feast day in the Western Church. The Second Book of Maccabees, a book of the biblical Apocrypha, tells of the persecutions endured by the Jewish people in the second century BC at the hands of the Seleucid authorities, and it includes a description of a series of gruesome martyrdoms suffered by members of the Maccabees. There was a medieval Christian allegorical procession, called a chorea maccabaeorum ("dance of the Maccabees") in Latin, that may have included a reenactment of these horrors, and the literary and artistic motif of the Danse Macabré may have originated in part from this procession.

The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition copyright ©2017 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
 

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