con·​temp·​tu·​ous kən-ˈtem(p)-chə-wəs How to pronounce contemptuous (audio)
: manifesting, feeling, or expressing deep hatred or disapproval : feeling or showing contempt
contemptuously adverb
contemptuousness noun

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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.

Example Sentences

He owned a fine Kentucky rifle, with a cherry wood stock, and was contemptuous of the bulky carbines most of the troop had adopted. Larry McMurtry, Dead Man's Walk, 1995 In his 1978 Harvard commencement address, Mr. Solzhenitsyn seemed at times contemptuous of American democracy … Daniel Patrick Moynihan, New York Times Book Review, 24 Nov. 1991 He felt familiar enough to indulge in outbursts of rage or contemptuous sarcasm in her presence, and to display the most withering side of his character, lashing out at the people he despised. Cynthia Ozick, New Yorker, 20 Nov. 1989 loutish tourists who are contemptuous of the ways and traditions of their host countries contemptuous comments about the baseball team's pathetic showings
Recent Examples on the Web That contemptuous attitude is hardly surprising when so many voters cast their ballot with one hand while holding their nose with the other. Los Angeles Times, 8 Nov. 2022 For much of the hour-long contemptuous meeting, Ryan and Vance were constantly invoking the boogeymen around their foe. Philip Elliott, Time, 18 Oct. 2022 The morning after Daemon and Rhaenyra's big night out, Mysaria is shown to be increasingly contemptuous of her lover. Philip Ellis, Men's Health, 17 Sep. 2022 Despite this innate logic, one wonders whether an ill-informed and contemptuous type of harsh judgment creeps in when individuals of a certain mindset spot a younger person in a mobility device. Gus Alexiou, Forbes, 31 July 2022 Not posh, and neither impressed by nor contemptuous of those who were. Ian Mcewan, The New Yorker, 1 Aug. 2022 Undaunted, and contemptuous of her sister’s cowardice, Antigone proceeds and is arrested. Rachel Hadas, The Conversation, 8 July 2022 Even Charles Schultz was contemptuous, showing Sally’s confusion over joining sets, number sentences, and one-to-one matching. Jonathon Keats, Forbes, 30 June 2022 Grandiosity is the sense of being above other people, and contemptuous of the rules. Jancee Dunn, Vogue, 17 June 2022 See More

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

Word History


probably borrowed from Medieval Latin contemptuōsus, from Latin contemptu-, stem of contemptus contempt + -ōsus -ous

First Known Use

1574, in the meaning defined above

Time Traveler
The first known use of contemptuous was in 1574

Dictionary Entries Near contemptuous

Cite this Entry

“Contemptuous.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 8 Dec. 2022.

Kids Definition


con·​temp·​tu·​ous kən-ˈtem(p)-ch(ə-w)əs How to pronounce contemptuous (audio)
: feeling or showing contempt
contemptuously adverb
contemptuousness noun

More from Merriam-Webster on contemptuous

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