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[awr-deel, -dee-uh l, awr-deel] /ɔrˈdil, -ˈdi əl, ˈɔr dil/
any extremely severe or trying test, experience, or trial.
a primitive form of trial to determine guilt or innocence by subjecting the accused person to fire, poison, or other serious danger, the result being regarded as a divine or preternatural judgment.
Origin of ordeal
before 950; Middle English ordal, Old English ordāl; cognate with Dutch oordeel, German Urteil. See a-3, dole1 Unabridged
Based on the Random House Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2015.
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British Dictionary definitions for ordeal


a severe or trying experience
(history) a method of trial in which the guilt or innocence of an accused person was determined by subjecting him to physical danger, esp by fire or water. The outcome was regarded as an indication of divine judgment
Word Origin
Old English ordāl, ordēl; related to Old Frisian ordēl, Old High German urteili (German Urteil) verdict. See deal1, dole1
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition
© William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins
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Word Origin and History for ordeal

Old English ordel, ordal, "trial by physical test," literally "judgment, verdict," from Proto-Germanic noun *uzdailjam (cf. Old Saxon urdeli, Old Frisian urdel, Dutch oordeel, German urteil "judgment"), literally "that which is dealt out" (by the gods), from *uzdailijan "share out," related to Old English adælan "to deal out" (see deal (n.1)). Curiously absent in Middle English, and perhaps reborrowed 16c. from Medieval Latin or Middle French, which got it from Germanic.

The notion is of the kind of arduous physical test (such as walking blindfolded and barefoot between red-hot plowshares) that was believed to determine a person's guilt or innocence by immediate judgment of the deity, an ancient Teutonic mode of trial. English retains a more exact sense of the word; its cognates in German, etc., have been generalized.

Metaphoric extension to "anything which tests character or endurance" is attested from 1650s. The prefix or- survives in English only in this word, but was common in Old English and other Germanic languages (Gothic ur-, Old Norse or-, etc.) and originally was an adverb and preposition meaning "out."

Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2010 Douglas Harper
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