Merriam-Webster Logo
  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
  • Medical
  • Scrabble
  • Spanish Central
  • Learner's Dictionary


adjective es·o·ter·ic \ˌe-sə-ˈter-ik, -ˈte-rik\

Simple Definition of esoteric

  • : only taught to or understood by members of a special group : hard to understand

  • : limited to a small number of people

Full Definition of esoteric

  1. 1 a :  designed for or understood by the specially initiated alone <a body of esoteric legal doctrine — B. N. Cardozo> b :  requiring or exhibiting knowledge that is restricted to a small group <esoteric terminology>; broadly :  difficult to understand <esoteric subjects>

  2. 2 a :  limited to a small circle <engaging in esoteric pursuits> b :  private, confidential <an esoteric purpose>

  3. 3 :  of special, rare, or unusual interest <esoteric building materials>

es·o·ter·i·cal·ly play \-i-k(ə-)lē\ adverb

Examples of esoteric

  1. A kahuna is a master of Hawaiian esoteric practices. Recently, Mariko Gordon and Hugh Cosman engaged a kahuna to bless their house. … —Alec Wilkinson, New Yorker, 7 Oct. 2002

  2. … he listens to a group of Malaysians playing reedy, plangent music on some esoteric kind of wind instrument. —Penelope Lively, City of the Mind, 1991

  3. There was a new mall, an excellent bookstore with esoteric literary and policy journals, some restaurants with cosmopolitan menus, and engaging real estate advertisements. —Robert D. Kaplan, An Empire Wilderness, 1988

  4. <metaphysics is such an esoteric subject that most people are content to leave it to the philosophers>

  5. <must have had some esoteric motive for leaving his art collection to a museum halfway around the globe>

Origin of esoteric

Late Latin esotericus, from Greek esōterikos, from esōterō, comparative of eisō, esō within, from eis into; akin to Greek en in — more at in

First Known Use: circa 1660

Seen and Heard

What made you want to look up esoteric? Please tell us where you read or heard it (including the quote, if possible).


February 5, 2016

bread traditionally eaten on Shabbat

Get Word of the Day daily email!


Take a 3-minute break and test your skills!


Which of the following refers to thin, bending ice, or to the act of running over such ice?

spindrift duvet kittly-benders pince-nez
Name That Thing

10 quick questions: hear them, spell them, and see how your skills compare to the crowd.


Test Your Knowledge - and learn some interesting things along the way.