li·​cen·​tious lī-ˈsen(t)-shəs How to pronounce licentious (audio)
: lacking legal or moral restraints
especially : disregarding sexual restraints
licentious behavior
licentious revelers
: marked by disregard for strict rules of correctness
licentiously adverb
licentiousness noun

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The Shared Roots of License and Licentious

License and licentious come ultimately from the same word in Latin, licentia, whose meanings ranged from "freedom to act" to "unruly behavior, wantonness." The Latin noun was itself derived from the verb licere "to be permitted." Though we are likely to associate license with the card that grants freedom or permission to operate a motor vehicle and licentious with sexual wantonness, in actuality, there is considerable semantic overlap between the two words. Poetic license refers to deviation from a (usually) literary norm for some purposeful effect. A person who takes license with something (or someone) engages in "abusive disregard for rules of personal conduct." Hence, the semantic range of license in English mirrors that of its Latin antecedent, suggesting either permission or transgression, depending upon the context. Licentious, on the other hand, always implies excessive, transgressive freedom, as is true of its immediate Latin source, licentiosus "unrestrained, wanton" (literally, "full of freedom").

Examples of licentious in a Sentence

a moralist who decried what she regarded as the licentious and corrupt culture of the entertainment industry
Recent Examples on the Web Freedom’s licentious behavior shocks many of her fellow villagers, who conclude that her bottle must have contained some powerful intoxicant. Salman Rushdie, The New Yorker, 31 Oct. 2023 Ahmed is referring to the era in Tangier's history, beginning in the interwar period and peaking in the 1950s, when the city served as a licentious playground for a motley assortment of artists, socialites, and hedonists. Stephanie Rafanelli, Condé Nast Traveler, 28 Aug. 2023 In fact, Protestantism emerged in the 1500s in no small part as a reaction to the licentious behavior of some pilgrims and priests, the selling of indulgences to enrich the church or various members of the clergy, and the corruption that was associated with many pilgrimages of the time. James Mills, The Conversation, 24 Mar. 2021 On these ships, Caligula was reported to hold parties where his wild and licentious appetites ran wild, with later historians repeating scurrilous and outlandish rumours about relationships with the wives of his generals and senators, and even with his own sisters. Paul Cooper, Discover Magazine, 7 Nov. 2018 His diaries offered a ‘worldly, intelligent, licentious, highly indiscreet’ entree into elite gay and artistic circles. Tim Page, Washington Post, 18 Nov. 2022 Living in a New York City doorman apartment, wearing clothes with subtle, correct labels, cutting out carbs and sugar in an effort to asexualize my licentious figure—check, check, and check. Jessica Knoll, Vogue, 11 Oct. 2022 And the resolution of the story, while not exactly a shock, is a departure from that of its ancestor, which in contrast now seems almost licentious. John Anderson, WSJ, 8 Sep. 2022 Underneath the uniform of Sister Hilda, Woolgar (who also played the licentious Lady Repton on Harlots) sports cascades of strawberry blonde waves. Lauren Hubbard, Town & Country, 17 Mar. 2022 See More

These examples are programmatically compiled from various online sources to illustrate current usage of the word 'licentious.' 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 licentiosus, from licentia

First Known Use

1535, in the meaning defined at sense 1

Time Traveler
The first known use of licentious was in 1535

Dictionary Entries Near licentious

Cite this Entry

“Licentious.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 7 Dec. 2023.

Kids Definition


li·​cen·​tious lī-ˈsen-chəs How to pronounce licentious (audio)
: marked by immoral or lawless behavior
licentiously adverb
licentiousness noun

Legal Definition


li·​cen·​tious lī-ˈsen-chəs How to pronounce licentious (audio)
: disregarding legal restraints especially with regard to sexual relations
arrested as a prostitute for licentious sexual intercourse
licentiously adverb
licentiousness noun

More from Merriam-Webster on licentious

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