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A long while ago, in an Italian class we were discussing the meaning of the English verb propitiate. I tried to argue that a usage like "they propitiated Demeter with offerings in the hope of a bountiful harvest" was perfectly valid in English, but my classmates were adamant that propitiate in English always involves quelling or appeasing some angered party.

Some online definitions like that of the Cambridge dictionary support only my classmates; some like the Oxford seem to admit the possibility that the propitiated party need not be angry.

The question came up because we came across the Italian verb propiziare. According to our teacher, the Italian version of my Demeter usage above would be fine.

I'm certainly not denying that what my classmates insist on is the more frequent meaning. Are there more things between heaven and earth than are dreamt of in their philosophy, or am I clinging to at best a quite obscure use of the English word?

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  • I see no problem using it in relation to a habitual, ritual, or preventative act with respect to mythical gods with a reputation for nastiness. Wikipedia doesn't either. But the nastiness bit is important. Historically, reputation was almost as good as actual conduct as far as justifications went (and it was often a lot easier to produce as evidence).
    – Phil Sweet
    Sep 2, 2017 at 3:16

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Language is often not a binary proposition of "right versus wrong". And American Heritage Dictionary does agres with you:

To gain or regain the goodwill or favor of; appease: propitiate the gods with a sacrifice.

Gaining goodwill or favor implies that the god is not angry in the first place, otherwise, it would be regaining. QED.

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