enfant terrible


en·​fant ter·​ri·​ble äⁿ-fäⁿ-te-ˈrēblᵊ How to pronounce enfant terrible (audio)
plural enfants terribles äⁿ-fäⁿ-te-ˈrēblᵊ How to pronounce enfant terrible (audio)
: a child whose inopportune remarks cause embarrassment
: a person known for shocking remarks or outrageous behavior
: a usually young and successful person who is strikingly unorthodox, innovative, or avant-garde

Did you know?

Enfant terrible, which literally means "terrifying child" in French, sounds like something that might be uttered by a frazzled babysitter. Indeed, when English speakers first borrowed the term in the mid-19th century, it was used in reference to children - specifically, unpredictable children who blurted out outrageous remarks that embarrassed their elders. By the 1930s, the term had a broader application: an enfant terrible could be anyone - young or old - whose behavior shocked others. Now the term is also often applied to young, successful newcomers who shock or scare old-timers with their new approaches, easy successes, or disregard for tradition.

Example Sentences

an author who reveled in his role as the enfant terrible of American letters
Recent Examples on the Web Estella enters the orbit of the Baroness (Emma Thompson), a fashion maven, becoming her apprentice, her in-house enfant terrible, and, lastly, her nemesis, courtesy of a twist so ridiculous that Cruella has to stand in the open air, at dawn, and spell it out for us. Anthony Lane, The New Yorker, 28 May 2021 That Korine, a filmmaker for whom the term enfant terrible might have been invented, used a teen-movie formula to do this — as well as casting three former kid stars who were in the midst of changing their images — only makes this sleazefest more subversive. David Fear, Rolling Stone, 15 Mar. 2023 This limited-edition offering from Geneva's enfant terrible horologer is simply spectacular. Alex Doak, CNN, 9 Apr. 2021 Twenty-five years after wrapping season two of his twisted hospital soap (think Grey’s Anatomy meets David Lynch), Danish enfant terrible Lars von Trier returns to his TV debut with season three. Scott Roxborough, The Hollywood Reporter, 31 Mar. 2022 With each successive effort, he’s gotten closer to answering the question: What happens when an enfant terrible grows up? Washington Post, 8 Mar. 2022 After a 10-year hiatus, the enfant terrible of gay fiction, Dennis Cooper, returns with I Wished, which may just be his most surreal, disturbing, vulnerable work yet (which is saying a lot). Vogue, 11 Aug. 2021 Von Trier’s willingness to play the enfant terrible was a big part of his early legend, but so was his almost preternatural assurance with a camera. Adam Nayman, The New Yorker, 1 Dec. 2022 At 11 years and change, the enfant terrible is already sporting the hunchback and hook nose, and dreaming of world domination. Peter Debruge, Variety, 13 June 2022 See More

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

Word History


French, literally, terrifying child

First Known Use

1851, in the meaning defined at sense 1a

Time Traveler
The first known use of enfant terrible was in 1851


Dictionary Entries Near enfant terrible

Cite this Entry

“Enfant terrible.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/enfant%20terrible. Accessed 28 May. 2023.

Last Updated: - Updated example sentences
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