abys·​sal ə-ˈbi-səl How to pronounce abyssal (audio)
: of or relating to the bottom waters of the ocean depths

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Abyssal is a relatively rare word, though it's derived from the more prevalent noun, abyss. In contrast, the adjective abysmal is more common than its corresponding noun abysm. All four terms descend from the Late Latin word abyssus, which is in turn derived from the Greek abyssos ("bottomless"). Abyss and abysm are synonymous (both can refer to the mythical bottomless pit in old accounts of the universe or can be used more broadly in reference to any immeasurably deep gulf), but the adjectives abyssal and abysmal are not used identically. Abyssal can mean "incomprehensible" (as in "showed abyssal ignorance") but it's most often found in contexts referring to the bottom of the sea. Abysmal shares the oceanographic sense with abyssal, but it more frequently means "immeasurably great" or "absolutely wretched."

Examples of abyssal in a Sentence

Recent Examples on the Web Three years of computer modeling found the Antarctic overturning circulation – also known as abyssal ocean overturning – is on track to slow 42% by 2050 if the world continues to burn fossil fuels and produce high levels of planet-heating pollution. Hilary Whiteman, CNN, 29 Mar. 2023 Beijing announced new tariffs against the US on Friday, deepening the already abyssal trade war between the two countries. Aj Willingham, CNN, 26 Aug. 2019 As an open-source project, C:DDA has its inner workings posted freely online, where anyone with a working knowledge of C++ can dive in and add weapons, recipes, and more information into the simulation's already abyssal depths. Eric Limer, Popular Mechanics, 17 Dec. 2018 Even here, though, abyssal tuba notes exposed a sonic substratum. Alex Ross, The New Yorker, 21 Apr. 2017 Before New Horizons flew by, scientists thought there wouldn’t be much in the way of geological activity happening out there on the fringe, where temperatures are decidedly abyssal and materials tend to freeze in place. National Geographic, 14 July 2016

These examples are programmatically compiled from various online sources to illustrate current usage of the word 'abyssal.' Any opinions expressed in the examples do not represent those of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback about these examples.

Word History


borrowed from Medieval Latin abyssālis, from Late Latin abyssus abyss + Latin -ālis -al entry 1

First Known Use

1609, in the meaning defined at sense 1

Time Traveler
The first known use of abyssal was in 1609


Dictionary Entries Near abyssal

Cite this Entry

“Abyssal.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/abyssal. Accessed 6 Dec. 2023.

Kids Definition


abys·​sal ə-ˈbis-əl How to pronounce abyssal (audio)
: of or relating to the bottom waters of the ocean depths

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