des·​ul·​to·​ry ˈde-səl-ˌtȯr-ē How to pronounce desultory (audio)
: marked by lack of definite plan, regularity, or purpose
a dragged-out ordeal of … desultory shoppingHerman Wouk
: not connected with the main subject
desultory comments
: disappointing in progress, performance, or quality
a desultory fifth place finish
a desultory wine
desultorily adverb
desultoriness noun

Did you know?

The Latin adjective desultorius was used by the ancients to refer to a circus performer (called a desultor) whose trick was to leap from horse to horse without stopping. It makes sense, then, that someone or something desultory "jumps" from one thing to another. (Desultor and desultorius, by the way, come from the Latin verb salire, meaning "to leap.") A desultory conversation leaps from one topic to another and doesn't have a distinct point or direction. A desultory student skips from one subject to another without applying serious effort to any particular one. A desultory comment is a digressive one that jumps away from the topic at hand. And a desultory performance is one resulting from an implied lack of steady, focused effort.

Examples of desultory in a Sentence

a desultory search for something of interest on TV a desultory discussion about the news of the day
Recent Examples on the Web After a period of reckoning, Bonnard married Marthe in a desultory civil ceremony in 1925. Sebastian Smee, Washington Post, 27 Mar. 2024 Others disappeared almost without notice, their one big shot on the launching pad that SNL has become over the decades fizzling out in a nondescript series of tiny roles and desultory goodnight waves from home base at Rockefeller Center. Dennis Perkins,, 14 Dec. 2023 That is not the case with the men’s basketball team, which has had a desultory season, anchored in last place in the Ivy League. Billy Witz, New York Times, 5 Mar. 2024 The negotiations between Ukrainian and Russian officials are moving at a desultory pace. Janice Gross Stein, Foreign Affairs, 9 Mar. 2022 Endings are never easy, but this was an especially rough one, a desultory loss at home to the miserable Jets, in the snow, the 71-year-old head coach fighting a cold, a tight balaclava covering nearly all of his face. Jason Gay, WSJ, 11 Jan. 2024 A little later, Billy circle backs to Joe’s desultory flat, which is full of Billy Mack memorabilia. Stephen Rodrick, Variety, 21 Nov. 2023 What might have been an unexpected Lennon-McCartney triumph had ended in an amateurish, desultory jam. Jordan Runtagh, Peoplemag, 31 Oct. 2023 What followed seemed inevitable: a desultory performance in Game 4—the Bulls did even worse, scoring just 77 points— followed by the Bulls’ final loss of the season in Game 5 in Detroit. Rich Cohen, Rolling Stone, 26 Sep. 2023

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

Word History


Latin desultorius, literally, of a circus rider who leaps from horse to horse, from desilire to leap down, from de- + salire to leap — more at sally

First Known Use

1581, in the meaning defined at sense 1

Time Traveler
The first known use of desultory was in 1581


Dictionary Entries Near desultory

Cite this Entry

“Desultory.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 26 May. 2024.

Kids Definition


des·​ul·​to·​ry ˈdes-əl-ˌtōr-ē How to pronounce desultory (audio)
: passing aimlessly from one thing or subject to another
desultory conversation
desultorily adverb
desultoriness noun

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