I was wondering if there was a word that meant nearly the same thing as nemesis, but was not connotated with a person.

For example, if someone were to say: "Your greatest nemesis showed you your deepest fear."

Most people would assume nemesis was actually referring to a person, but in this context, the author was trying to refer to an abiotic thing. (ex: anger, drugs, acid rain)

So what is a word that means the same as nemesis, but does not refer to a person?

Also: The author cannot explicitly state what the nemesis replacement word refers to in the sentence, the reader must 'fill in the blank' with what the word means to them.

EDIT: Here is the exact sentence I am writing:

The relationship between you and your [nemesis] may seem to be purely an unmutual fight, but underneath the surface, your [nemesis] fuels you to greater heights.

but, in this case, I do not want your nemesis to refer to a person necessarily, I want it to refer to a deep struggle that you might have.

EDIT 2: Due to popular demand, I have changed the phrase purely an unmutual fight to strictly a fight with no benefits, the sentence now reads:

The relationship between you and your [nemesis] may seem to be strictly a fight with no benefits, but underneath the surface, your [nemesis] fuels you to greater heights.

  • 10
    Any dictionary will inform you that nemesis does not necessarily imply a person. However, it does in educated use imply the agent or agency of deserved punishment or revenge. Commented Dec 4, 2016 at 16:39
  • 8
    "Most people would assume nemesis was actually referring to a person..." Why? I wouldn't jump to such a conclusion, and I asked a few people around here, and none would assume it means a person.
    – Ron Maupin
    Commented Dec 4, 2016 at 23:41
  • 4
    What is an ‘unmutual fight’? A one-sided one? A fight heavily in one party's favour? Just one side punching the other? Commented Dec 5, 2016 at 1:07
  • 2
    You're saying the whale was not Ahab's nemesis?
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Dec 6, 2016 at 13:15
  • 1
    Nemesis is fine. The word you want to replace is "unmutual".
    – DCShannon
    Commented Dec 7, 2016 at 1:11

11 Answers 11




  1. a person or thing that ruins or spoils:
    Gambling was the bane of his existence.


Your bane goes beyond just ruining you; it is your nemesis, it is always getting you and you fall victim to it very often.

  • 2
    I'm not sure I've heard "bane" used outside of the phrase "bane of someone's existence," or without reference to the "nemesis replacement word." Commented Dec 4, 2016 at 16:36
  • 1
    +1; I think bane is bang on. @BladorthinTheGrey, I see you are on a roll! Commented Dec 4, 2016 at 17:48
  • 1
    The relationship between you and the bane of your existence... your bane fuels you.... The OP should use the word and the idiom for that sentence.
    – Mazura
    Commented Dec 5, 2016 at 4:12
  • 4
    Considering the doubts in comments here, I just wanted to say that bane was exactly what I was thinking when I saw this question in the HNQs.
    – KRyan
    Commented Dec 5, 2016 at 22:04
  • 7
    Though not so often in common parlance, bane is quite often used in phrases other than "... of one's existence/life" in literature. Tolkien used it frequently, for example; "Isildur's Bane" is one of the names of the One Ring.
    – daiscog
    Commented Dec 6, 2016 at 13:34

There's no reason you can't use nemesis. Merriam Webster's definition page gives several examples where the word "nemesis" doesn't refer to people:

On just the kind of putt that had been a career-long nemesis, he kept his head perfectly still and knocked the ball squarely in the hole. —Jaime Diaz, Sports Illustrated, 20 Feb. 1995 (from M-W)

Thus, once surgeons implant the new graft, tissue rejection—the unforgiving nemesis of most transplant attempts—occurs in only 3% to 5% of cases. —Christine Gorman et al., Time, 7 Dec. 1987 (from M-W)

Granted, these sentences all refer to the thing that is the nemesis, but this seems a natural thing to do in order not to keep the reader/listener hanging. Your example sentence, "Your greatest nemesis showed you your deepest fear," assumes that the reader/listener already has some idea what that nemesis is.

  • 3
    A well-put sentence drives the reader to the intended conclusion. Yes, nemesis can refer to things other than people, but more often than not, it refers to a person. Making the word nemesis more likely to give the reader a different conclusion than the intended one. However, your answer does have good reason, so you get an upvote from me.
    – Pythogen
    Commented Dec 4, 2016 at 19:17
  • 2
    @Pythogen I see no problem using "nemesis". You're already anthropomorphizing this concept in your example sentence by describing the relationship as a "fight". Commented Dec 5, 2016 at 20:06

You might use bête noire for this. In the context of your example it most often would be your greatest fear, but I think you could use it to say that the acknowledged bête noire showed you your actual, unacknowledged deepest fear. From Wiktionary:

Borrowing from French bête noire ‎(literally “black beast”).

bête noire ‎(plural bêtes noires)

An anathema; someone or something which is particularly disliked or avoided; an object of aversion, the bane of one’s existence.

It is used for the kind of things you mention:

Several of the rules cautioned against Seneca's bête noire, anger. —Richard Brookhiser, Founding Father

But Ecstasy quickly became a class A drug and was soon seen as the bête noire of club life. —Mike Presdee, Cultural Criminology and the Carnival of Crime

For years, the public and scientists alike feared that lakes and forests in the eastern United States were being destroyed by acid rain . . . . Today, environmental issues are far different from those even 30 years ago. In part, that's because visible pollution has almost disappeared—the plumes from power plants are mostly steam (and carbon dioxide, today's bête noire, is invisible). —Richard L. Stroup, Eco-nomics: What Everyone Should Know about Economics and the Environment

I think it's especially useful for personifying/demonizing a more abstract concept (that doesn't actually care oone way or the other about you) as an adversary. So your example would read:

The relationship between you and your bête noire may seem to be purely an unmutual fight, but underneath the surface, your bête noire fuels you to greater heights.

(Wiktionary also suggests the similar bugbear.)


You might consider kryptonite if the circumstances allow for it.

Oxford Dictionaries defines it as:

[mass noun] (in science fiction) an alien mineral with the property of depriving Superman of his powers

The book From Average to Awesome: Lessons for Living an Extraordinary Life By Jim Smith, Jr. uses it like this:

Bronwen, a close friend, recently told me about how her friend Denny summoned the courage to get rid of his kryptonite. She related how his sales job was causing him severe pain....


I suggest demon for this.

Unless there is likelihood of confusion of this figurative use with a literal use (think horns), I think it would fit well in your phrase due to it having the right 'weight'.


I'd go with the classic Herman Melville concept of White Whale. It might be a little too much in the direction of a plain obsession, which is not the same as a nemesis. But it seems to define a struggle against a specific thing or being, and a tug war between two adversaries. Adversary is also a good word, but I personally think that refers more to a person again.


plural bugaboos
1: an imaginary object of fear
2: bugbear 2; also : something that causes fear or distress out of proportion to its importance

  • 4
    Why do you feel this answers the question? Answers should provide explanation and context, and be mostly your own words.
    – tchrist
    Commented Dec 4, 2016 at 21:33
  • 5
    "The relationship between you and your bugaboo may seem to be purely an unmutual fight, but underneath the surface, your bugaboo fuels you to greater heights."
    – RozzA
    Commented Dec 4, 2016 at 21:35
  • 4
    I'm laughing too hard right now
    – Pythogen
    Commented Dec 5, 2016 at 1:12

Inner Demons


Personal struggles in your mind, almost always a solo fight

"The relationship between you and your inner demons may seem to be purely an unmutual fight, but underneath the surface, your inner demons fuels you to greater heights."

Also, just a suggestion, instead of repeating the word in both places, why not write a pronoun for it in the second sentence?

[Urban Dictionary]


One's curse implies the same as nemesis without a connotation of a person. Check the relevant examples using curse in this context (from ODO) below.

The relationship between you and your curse may seem to be purely an unmutual fight, but underneath the surface, your curse fuels you to greater heights.


curse NOUN

1.1 [usually in singular] A cause of harm or misery

‘Some people were afflicted with the curse of bad timing.’

‘But for five years he went into a colossal sulk, blaming his problems on ‘the curse of being lower middle class’ and refusing to give interviews.’


NIGHTMARE can also be a good option,meaning a person, thing, or situation that is very difficult to deal with.


Although tending toward too generic, perhaps, obstruction seems to fit, while not suggesting human qualities.


I voted up bane and bête noire because most writers in most contexts would likely choose these as forceful and compelling alternatives to "nemesis". They meet the OP's requirement of being de-personalized, and are simply more catchy to most readers.

Still, while obstruction may seem bland or generic (as acknowledged in my first answer), it has a justification supported in The Book of Doing and Being: Rediscovering Creativity in Life, Love, and Work — which describes obstruction in the very sense I meant it.


Obstruction often comes up in opposition to the things that we most want to create and most want to do. . . According to the Oxford American Dictionary, obstruction is "a thing that impedes or prevents passage or progress; an obstacle or blockage." . . . With enough repetition, an obstruction easily turns into full-blown self-sabotage. . . Now it is time to dialogue with your obstruction. Finding out what it has to tell you will free up your reservoir of creative energy. [Emphasis mine.]

(By the aptly named Barnet Bain!)

Note that the phrase "your [nemesis/obstruction/bane]" appears in the OP's example sentence.

The OP also gave examples of anger, drugs, and acid rain as fitting this descriptor. The internal state of anger definitely seems to qualify as an "obstruction" — existing as part of one's own self, and less malevolent than "bane" (that which ruins or spoils) or "bête noire" (literally 'black beast' in French.)

Obstructions are an unavoidable fact of life, not necessarily evil or "out to get us" — human qualities we are trying to avoid in this use case. They also spur growth and adaptation, capable of fueling us "to greater heights". The derived word "obstructionism" is often used in political discussions, and while obstructionism can be maddening to witness, it doesn't necessarily imply that the opposing party is diabolical, a "black beast", or the bringer of downfall. We can choose a neutral (or at least more nuanced) view of our obstructions.

The relationship between you and your obstruction may seem to be strictly a fight with no benefits, but underneath the surface, your obstruction fuels you to greater heights.

  • I learned to consider my possible answer more carefully, or comment first rather than answer. Commented Dec 4, 2016 at 18:53

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.