con·​tempt | \ kən-ˈtem(p)t How to pronounce contempt (audio) \

Definition of contempt

1a : the act of despising : the state of mind of one who despises : disdain glared at him in contempt
b : lack of respect or reverence for something acting with contempt for public safety
2 : the state of being despised
3 : willful disobedience to or open disrespect of a court, judge, or legislative body contempt of court

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Contempt in Law: The Meaning of 'In Contempt,' 'Contempt of Court/Congress,' 'Civil/Criminal Contempt,' and 'Inherent Contempt'

Contempt is a term with both general and legal applications. In general contexts, it often refers to a feeling of extreme disrespect or disapproval for someone or something (as in "those responsible for the swindle were widely regarded with contempt"), or with a lack of respect for something typically granted respect (as in "a driver who was acting with contempt for their passengers' safety"). In legal contexts, the idea of respect is formalized.

In law, the word contempt most simply refers to speech or behavior that does not show proper respect to a judge, court, or legislative body. One who is officially regarded as having engaged in such speech or behavior is (commonly, "found" or "held") "in contempt." Legal contempt may take the form of willful disobedience, as when someone refuses to respond to questions or to obey the court's or body's orders; or it may take the form of open disrespect, as when someone uses disruptive language. This general legal contempt is also called "contempt of court" when it is against a judge or court. When such contempt is against a legislative body, a phrase specifying the title of the legislative body is used, e.g., "contempt of congress," "contempt of parliament," "contempt of assembly," etc.

The term civil contempt is applied when someone's willful disobedience to the judge, court, or legislative body consists of a refusal to do something that favors the opposing party. For example, if a court orders a company to pay damages to an individual, and the company does not pay those damages, the company can be held in civil contempt. The company will cease to be in civil contempt when it pays the damages, thereby complying with the order. The aim of holding someone in civil contempt is compliance.

Criminal contempt refers to contempt that consists of behavior that disrupts or challenges the proceedings or power of the court or legislative body. Someone yelling or behaving disruptively in a court would constitute criminal contempt, as would someone refusing to answer a judge's or legislator's questions. The sanctions for criminal contempt, such as fines or imprisonment, are designed to function as punishment as well as to force compliance.

Unlike the terms contempt of court/congress, civil contempt, and criminal contempt, inherent contempt refers not to speech or behavior that warrants sanction, but to a power of a legislative body. Specifically, inherent contempt is the power of a legislative body to arrest, try, and imprison someone for contempt. The contempt that inherent contempt answers is criminal contempt: a person who willfully disobeys and openly disrespects the orders of a legislative body acting in a judicial capacity, and is therefore acting in criminal contempt, can be subject to inherent contempt, which means being arrested by a sergeant at arms and imprisoned.

The inherent piece of inherent contempt is tied to a meaning of the word that is no longer in common use. While inherent today most often describes what belongs to the basic nature of someone or something, the historical Oxford English Dictionary reports that the word was formerly also used to mean "vested in or attached to a person, office, etc., as a right or privilege." Inherent contempt is vested in a legislative body as a right.

Examples of contempt in a Sentence

There, in the tall grass and the jungle, many would fall and the rest would return home to endure the sullen contempt of their fellow citizens, all to no purpose. — A. J. Bacevich, Commonweal, 12 Sept. 1997 I even read a mild contempt into this first-name business, comparable to the old habit of calling men Mac, Ace, Chief, or Buddy, or calling women Honey, Sweetie, or Doll. — Aristides, American Scholar, Summer 1996 The same contempt for the poor that suggests kids are better off in orphanages will mobilize resistance to the orphanages themselves. — Katha Pollitt, Nation, 12 Dec. 1994 … they looked with contempt at the bloodless gray arthritic hands of the old woman … — Alice Walker, In Love & Trouble, 1973 He feels that wealthy people view him with contempt because he is poor. He spoke with contempt in his voice. She has displayed a profound contempt for her opponents. She was arrested for contempt of court.
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Recent Examples on the Web

The contempt resolution now goes to the full House for a vote. Washington Post, "Contempt of Congress and Executive Privilege, Explained," 18 Sep. 2019 The companies’ initial appeal of the contempt order was denied Tuesday. Ethan Baron, The Mercury News, "Facebook and Twitter in ‘inexcusable’ contempt of court over refusal to hand over private messages in murder case," 2 Aug. 2019 Just before the House was to vote, however, Barr and Ross urged House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in a letter to postpone the contempt vote. CBS News, "Barr and Ross urge Pelosi to postpone criminal contempt vote over 2020 census question - live updates," 17 July 2019 Wednesday’s contempt vote formally authorized the oversight committee to take Barr and Ross to federal court to seek judicial enforcement of subpoenas for the material in question. Nicholas Fandos,, "House holds Barr and Ross in contempt over Census dispute," 17 July 2019 Cummings’s contempt resolution is the latest test of whether Congress can hold the Trump administration accountable. Ella Nilsen, Vox, "House votes to hold AG Barr and Commerce Secretary Ross in contempt of Congress over census citizenship question," 17 July 2019 Wednesday’s oversight hearing and contempt votes were designed to provoke the Trump administration into exerting executive privilege over a few confidential legal memos. Kimberley A. Strassel, WSJ, "‘Contempt’ and the Court," 13 June 2019 On Tuesday, the House also voted to continue to enforce subpoenas on Barr and Trump’s own John Dean, former counsel Don McGahn—though characteristically the majority delayed a decision on a harsher measure, a contempt vote. Alex Shephard, The New Republic, "Democrats Are Losing This Made-for-TV Moment," 12 June 2019 Earlier this year a three-judge panel of the court upheld the special counsel’s appointment and a contempt order intended to force Miller to testify. Chad Day, The Seattle Times, "Trump confidant Roger Stone seeks full Mueller report," 13 Apr. 2019

These example sentences are selected automatically from various online news sources to reflect current usage of the word 'contempt.' Views expressed in the examples do not represent the opinion of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback.

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First Known Use of contempt

14th century, in the meaning defined at sense 1a

History and Etymology for contempt

Middle English, borrowed from Anglo-French & Latin; Anglo-French, borrowed from Latin contemptus, from contemnere "to look down on, show no respect for, despise" + -tus, suffix of action nouns (with loss of n and intrusive p) — more at contemn

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Last Updated

20 Oct 2019

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Time Traveler for contempt

The first known use of contempt was in the 14th century

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More Definitions for contempt



English Language Learners Definition of contempt

: a feeling that someone or something is not worthy of any respect or approval
: a lack of respect for or fear of something that is usually respected or feared
law : speech or behavior that does not show proper respect to a court or judge


con·​tempt | \ kən-ˈtempt How to pronounce contempt (audio) \

Kids Definition of contempt

1 : a feeling of disrespect or disapproval of something or someone It amused him that she pretended such contempt for him and yet condescended to show off …— Esther Forbes, Johnny Tremain
2 : the state of being despised He holds them in contempt.
3 : lack of proper respect for a judge or court He was fined for contempt of court.


con·​tempt | \ kən-ˈtempt How to pronounce contempt (audio) \

Legal Definition of contempt

1 : willful disobedience or open disrespect of the orders, authority, or dignity of a court or judge acting in a judicial capacity by disruptive language or conduct or by failure to obey the court's orders also : the offense of contempt

called also contempt of court

civil contempt
: contempt that consists of disobedience to a court order in favor of the opposing party

Note: The sanctions for civil contempt end upon compliance with the order.

constructive contempt
: indirect contempt in this entry
criminal contempt
: contempt consisting of conduct that disrupts or opposes the proceedings or power of the court

Note: The sanctions for criminal contempt are designed to punish as well as to coerce compliance.

direct contempt
: contempt committed in the presence of the court or in a location close enough to disrupt the court's proceedings
indirect contempt
: contempt (as disobedience of a court order) that occurs outside of the presence of the court
2 : willful disobedience to a lawful order of or willful obstruction of a legislative body in the course of exercising its powers contempt of Congress
in contempt
: in the state of having been found guilty of contempt refused to testify and were held in contempt— A. M. Dershowitz

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Comments on contempt

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


involving a confidence or trust

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