con·​tempt·​ible kən-ˈtem(p)-tə-bəl How to pronounce contemptible (audio)
: worthy of contempt
a contemptible snob
contemptible bigots
obsolete : scornful, contemptuous
contemptibility noun
contemptibleness noun
contemptibly adverb

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What Is the Difference Between contemptuous and contemptible?

Contemptuous and contemptible are sometimes confused with each other. This is neither surprising, as they are similar in appearance, nor is it unprecedented: the words were used interchangeably for several hundred years (from the 16th through the 18th century), with each one meaning both "deserving contempt" and "showing contempt." By the early 19th century, some commentators began raising objections when the words were used synonymously, suggesting that they should be distinguished, with contemptuous meaning only "showing contempt" and contemptible only "deserving contempt."

In the following passage, for example, a would-be critic is ridiculed for using contemptible in the sense "showing contempt":

“Young man! my opinion of you is very contemptible.” “All your opinions are contemptible,” rejoined Phillip, quietly.  – Garry Avenel, Zou Mou, in The Iris, September, 1841

The distinction hinted at in this rebuke has been observed in English, by professional writers anyway, for close to 200 years.

Choose the Right Synonym for contemptible

contemptible, despicable, pitiable, sorry, scurvy mean arousing or deserving scorn.

contemptible may imply any quality provoking scorn or a low standing in any scale of values.

a contemptible liar

despicable may imply utter worthlessness and usually suggests arousing an attitude of moral indignation.

a despicable crime

pitiable applies to what inspires mixed contempt and pity.

a pitiable attempt at tragedy

sorry may stress pitiable inadequacy or may suggest wretchedness or sordidness.

this rattletrap is a sorry excuse for a car

scurvy adds to despicable an implication of arousing disgust.

a scurvy crew of hangers-on

Examples of contemptible in a Sentence

I've never met a more selfish, contemptible person. the contemptible thieves who stole the Christmas gifts intended for needy children
Recent Examples on the Web Living with Edith was unequivocally good, even if the notion of exchanging cash for a kid sounds contemptible. Hillary Kelly, The Atlantic, 19 Sep. 2023 As notable as the president’s more contemptible qualities, but less discussed, is the fact that, among the public, some are apparently just now taking notice. Becket Adams, National Review, 16 July 2023 The subsidy demanded from Las Vegas by Major League Baseball and A’s owner John Fisher, whose parents founded The Gap and who has a net worth estimated at $2.2 billion, would be contemptible enough. Michael Hiltzik, Los Angeles Times, 7 July 2023 More contemptible than pitiful, his only concern when his wife gets murdered is covering his tracks. Michael Nordine, Variety, 15 June 2023 Frank Langella, as a befuddled but contemptible Judge Julius Hoffman; Michael Keaton, as a coolly authoritative Ramsey Clark; Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, as a defiant Bobby Seale; and the list goes on. Michael Schulman, The New Yorker, 13 Apr. 2021 As observed here last week, the bipartisan unity studiously projected by the January 6 committee’s seven Democrats and two Republicans quickly breaks down when the subject strays from whether Donald Trump is contemptible and condemnable (unanimous, emphatic yes) to questions of what to do about it. Andrew C. McCarthy, National Review, 16 June 2022 The action, by more than half the Republican members of the House and almost a quarter of GOP senators, may rank among the most cynically contrived, morally contemptible, soul-corrupting acts of political degeneracy ever attempted. Gerard Baker, WSJ, 4 Jan. 2021 Mom would find the idea of using food for reasons other than nourishment contemptible. Irv Erdoscolumnist, San Diego Union-Tribune, 5 Feb. 2023 See More

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

Word History


Middle English, "unworthy, despicable," borrowed from Middle French & Latin; Middle French, "despicable, worthless," borrowed from Latin contemptibilis (Medieval Latin also, "contemptuous"), from contemptus, past participle of contemnere "to look down on, show no respect for, despise" + -ibilis -ible — more at contemn

First Known Use

14th century, in the meaning defined at sense 1

Time Traveler
The first known use of contemptible was in the 14th century

Dictionary Entries Near contemptible

Cite this Entry

“Contemptible.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 6 Dec. 2023.

Kids Definition


con·​tempt·​ible kən-ˈtem(p)-tə-bəl How to pronounce contemptible (audio)
: deserving contempt
a contemptible lie
contemptibly adverb

More from Merriam-Webster on contemptible

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