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I saw this headline on the BBC today:

China anoints Xi as new leader

There is one entry in the definition at Google's dictionary which exactly corresponds to the case in use:

Nominate or choose (someone) as successor to or leading candidate for a position - he was anointed as the organizational candidate of the party - his officially anointed heir

Although this entry doesn't have any mention to religiousness or ceremoniousness, I wonder: Is there a connotation religious or ceremonial connotation to the use of anoint in this case?

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"Although this entry doesn't have any mention to religiousness or ceremoniousness," -- that explains it. Today, the expression is used almost literally to mean 'formally appoint/ nominate' -- there's nothing else to read into it. Else the dictionary would have marked it as such. –  Kris Nov 15 '12 at 11:52

4 Answers 4

up vote 3 down vote accepted

It's an ancient ritual showing God’s hallowing of [sanctifying] the new king. It involves the physical act of pouring or smearing oil on the monarch’s head and chest.

Zadok the Priest, and Nathan the Prophet anointed Solomon King. (1 Kings 1:38-39)

It also occurs in the Coronation service for the British sovereign — where those words are sung to a setting by Handel. In a wide-ranging article, Wikipedia suggests that this is the last anointed monarchy.

Since there is only one instance of an anointed monarch (and that hasn’t happened for over sixty years), it’s not surprising that it’s become a metaphor in other fields.

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In contemporary English, it is not even much of a metaphor. More instances of its direct use (as if meant just the above definition) appear than in a metaphorical sense. Ceremonial, maybe, but nothing religious. –  Kris Nov 15 '12 at 11:55
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It is a metaphor if anointing doesn’t actually involve oil, whether Google’s dictionary notes it or not. As mentioned above, an actual anointing during a coronation hasn’t happened in a very long time, so it’s hardly a common use. –  Andrew Leach Nov 15 '12 at 12:03

In a metaphorical context, (which is the only one used nowadays), it refers to the formal appointment. Everybody knew Xi was going to be the next leader, but today he actually became so. So I would say nominate in the Google dictionary article is misleading; you can be nominated, even as sole candidate, some time before you are anointed (=appointed). Of course, in some contexts anointed is, though a metaphor, better than any alternative; your example may be one. Mr Xi was not appointed because that is done by superiors, and cannot apply to a supreme leader. Her was not elected because no vote was taken and the wishes of the populace did not come into it. The formal recognition of his reign could be a coronation except that that has anti-Communist implications, and in any case anointing is part of a coronation ceremony.

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I always think of anointing as something of a sticky situation, given its original meaning of “To smear with an unguent.” :) –  tchrist Nov 15 '12 at 13:31

Etymonline has an informative entry on the etymology of anoint:

c.1300 (implied in anointing), from O.Fr. enoint "smeared on," pp. of enoindre "smear on," from L. inunguere "to anoint," from in- "on" + unguere "to smear" (see unguent). Originally in reference to grease or oil smeared on for medicinal purposes; its use in the Coverdale Bible in reference to Christ (cf. The Lord's Anointed, see chrism) has spiritualized the word.

ODO's entry for anoint lists three senses:

  1. (anoint something with) smear or rub something with (any other substance): Kuna Indians anoint the tips of their arrows with poison
  2. ceremonially confer divine or holy office upon (a priest or monarch) by smearing or rubbing with oil:
    [with object and complement]:
    Samuel anointed him king
  3. nominate or choose (someone) as successor to or leading candidate for a position:
    (as adjective anointed)
    his officially anointed heir

Considering the dearth of royalty in the modern world, it's easy to see how the word has evolved to apply to political and industrial leaders. Furthermore, the "crowning" of the new leader is often performed in a ceremony making the term quite fitting. In the meantime, religious leaders and royalty continue to be anointed as before.

While anoint started its life innocently enough, it's since been hijacked and carries, if not always religious, ceremonial connotations to this day.

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I found the same headline similarly curious. My understanding of the verb to anoint involves a religious/ceremonial rite with oil or another substance. I was googling the details of the ceremony thinking it was very odd that China's communist political system would have such a ritiual when I came across this page! How old fashioned I must be to have misunderstood!

I do find it strange that, when we have a perfectly good word with a clear and appropriate meaning in to appoint, we should need to hijack another and give it a metaphorical sense as well.

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