es·​o·​ter·​ic ˌe-sə-ˈter-ik How to pronounce esoteric (audio)
: designed for or understood by the specially initiated alone
a body of esoteric legal doctrineB. N. Cardozo
: requiring or exhibiting knowledge that is restricted to a small group
esoteric terminology
broadly : difficult to understand
esoteric subjects
: limited to a small circle
engaging in esoteric pursuits
: private, confidential
an esoteric purpose
: of special, rare, or unusual interest
esoteric building materials
esoterically adverb

Did you know?

What is the opposite of esoteric?

The opposite of esoteric is exoteric, which means "suitable to be imparted to the public." According to one account, those who were deemed worthy to attend the Greek philosopher Aristotle's learned discussions were known as his "esoterics," his confidants, while those who merely attended his popular evening lectures were called his "exoterics." Since material that is geared toward a target audience is often not as easily comprehensible to outside observers, esoteric acquired an extended meaning of "difficult to understand." Both esoteric and exoteric started appearing in English in the 17th century; esoteric traces back to ancient Greek by way of the Late Latin esotericus. The Greek esōterikos is based on the comparative form of esō, which means "within."

Example Sentences

A kahuna is a master of Hawaiian esoteric practices. Recently, Mariko Gordon and Hugh Cosman engaged a kahuna to bless their house.  … Alec Wilkinson, New Yorker, 7 Oct. 2002
… he listens to a group of Malaysians playing reedy, plangent music on some esoteric kind of wind instrument. Penelope Lively, City of the Mind, 1991
There was a new mall, an excellent bookstore with esoteric literary and policy journals, some restaurants with cosmopolitan menus, and engaging real estate advertisements. Robert D. Kaplan, An Empire Wilderness, 1988
metaphysics is such an esoteric subject that most people are content to leave it to the philosophers must have had some esoteric motive for leaving his art collection to a museum halfway around the globe
Recent Examples on the Web Players take pride in the esoteric nature of the game as well as its asymmetrical court with buttress, galleries, numerous nooks and crannies with odd names and the fact that no two courts in the world are exactly the same. James Hill, New York Times, 3 June 2023 Until Nadal came along, Roland-Garros was a more esoteric tournament dominated by clay-court specialists. Joshua Robinson, WSJ, 28 May 2023 The structure is actually an extension of the hotel, housing ROOM — an esoteric, cave-like suite. Carole Sovocool, Robb Report, 21 Apr. 2023 What is spring training for, if not for these seemingly esoteric philosophical baseball arguments? Dallas News, 17 Feb. 2023 But, since the late seventies, American politics has taken a more accommodating approach to dynastic fortunes—slashing rates, widening exemptions, and permitting a vast range of esoteric loopholes for wealthy taxpayers. Evan Osnos, The New Yorker, 16 Jan. 2023 There are regular lectures on a range of esoteric topics, from how to invest in art to insights into the world of TV news anchoring. Noo Saro-wiwa, Condé Nast Traveler, 10 Nov. 2022 Unlike search or social media, whose arrivals the general public encountered and discussed and had opinions about, artificial intelligence remains esoteric—every bit as important and transformative as the other great tech disruptions, but more obscure, tucked largely out of view. Stephen Marche, The Atlantic, 15 Sep. 2022 Sullivan described how McCormick gathered and hoarded mountains of esoteric knowledge, about Johnson and other vernacular American musicians, and sat on his archive for decades while publishing almost nothing. Dwight Garner, New York Times, 17 Apr. 2023 See More

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

Word History


Late Latin esotericus, from Greek esōterikos, from esōterō, comparative of eisō, esō within, from eis into; akin to Greek en in — more at in

First Known Use

circa 1660, in the meaning defined at sense 1a

Time Traveler
The first known use of esoteric was circa 1660


Dictionary Entries Near esoteric

Cite this Entry

“Esoteric.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 9 Jun. 2023.

Kids Definition


es·​o·​ter·​ic ˌes-ə-ˈter-ik How to pronounce esoteric (audio)
: taught to or understood by members of a special group
esoteric knowledge
: hard to understand
esoteric subjects
: of special or unusual interest
esoteric colors
esoterically adverb

More from Merriam-Webster on esoteric

Last Updated: - Updated example sentences
Love words? Need even more definitions?

Subscribe to America's largest dictionary and get thousands more definitions and advanced search—ad free!