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Language Arts

Eminent, Imminent, Immanent



"Eminent," "imminent," and "immanent" are three very similar words that are easily confused. This article defines, contrasts, and has tips on using  "eminent," "imminent," and "immanent."

Eminent, imminent, and immanent are three adjectives that all have their foundations in Latin. Unraveling the relations between these words is a bit tricky. Let’s see what we have:

  • Eminent and imminent have the same etymological root.
  • Imminent and immanent are homophones.
  • Imminent and immanent are both inextricably connected to the concept of proximity.
  • The difference in spelling between eminent and imminent is the initial vowel and the single/double m that follows.
  • The difference in spelling between imminent and immanent is the middle vowel.

Now that we’ve laid that out, let’s focus on each word in turn.

Eminent

Eminent comes from the Latin ex -  + minere, meaning “to jut out,” and prominence is an essential part of its meanings. It can mean “standing out conspicuously,” “jutting out,” “standing above others in position or quality,” and by extension “noteworthy” and “having outstanding character or other traits.”

Although the first two definitions mentioned - “standing out conspicuously” and “jutting out” - do not inherently suggest a favorable view, the connotation of eminent is virtually always extremely favorable. Here are some examples:

 The eminent senator was greeted by a standing ovation upon his return to the Senate after his illness.

The town’s Gothic cathedral remains the eminent building, even in the Twenty-first Century.

Eminent is pronounced /EHM uh nuhnt/. The noun form is eminence.

Imminent

Imminent comes from the present participle of the Latin imminere (in + minere), which means “to overhang.” If you think about it for a moment, you can see that this could be synonymous with jutting in a particular direction. The main meaning of imminent gives the overhang a figurative meaning, as in our idiom “hanging over.” Imminent means “about to happen” or “impending.” It refers to events that have proximity in time and can refer to the advent of desirable circumstances or problematic, even dire developments. Here are examples:

A breakthrough in the peace talks is imminent.

If the firefighters cannot contain the blaze, a number of homes in the area will be faced with imminent destruction.

Imminent is pronounced /IHM uh nuhnt/. The noun form in imminence.

Immanent

Immanent comes from the Latin immanere, meaning “to remain in.” Its meanings are  rather specialized. One meaning is “restricted to the mind” or “subjective.” This is the antonym of immanent in this sense is transeunt, which means “producing effects outside the mind.”

Another meaning is “existing within” or “indwelling.” This is a specialized theological meaning referring to God dwelling within human beings. This understanding emphasizes God’s proximity to human beings. The antonym of immanent in this sense is transcendent, which means “beyond perception.” This emphasizes the distance and majesty of God. Here are examples:

Sir W. Hamilton said, “A cognition is an immanent act of mind.”

God is both immanent and transcendent, very near and far above.

Immanent is pronounced /IHM uh nuhnt/. The noun form in immanence.

Distinguishing Eminent, Imminent, and Immanent

Here’s an idea to connect the spelling and meaning of the word imminent and help distinguish it from the other two words: Consider the story of the Sword of Damocles, told by the orator Cicero. It was the fourth century B.C., and Damocles thought that the life of the tyrant of Syracuse, Dionysius, was just peachy . . . until he received the opportunity to trade places with Dionysius. He was just starting to enjoy himself when he noticed a sword, attached to the ceiling only by a horse’s hair, looming over his head. He got the tyrant’s message that ruling was not all luxury, but great responsibility with an imminent fall possible, and he was allowed to return home.

Imagine that the i’s in the beginning and the middle of the word are reminders of the hanging the sword. This will help you separate imminent from both other words. From there, you can jump to the fact that eminent, the other word with minere is the one with the related meaning of “jutting.” Immanent, on the other hand, has something internal that the others in the group don’t have - the letter a - try connecting this to the idea of God indwelling in people.