ob·​scene äb-ˈsēn How to pronounce obscene (audio)
: disgusting to the senses : repulsive
: abhorrent to morality or virtue
specifically : designed to incite to lust or depravity
… the dance often becomes flagrantly obscene and definitely provocative … Margaret Mead
: containing or being language regarded as taboo in polite usage
obscene lyrics
obscene literature
: repulsive by reason of crass disregard of moral or ethical principles
an obscene misuse of power
: so excessive as to be offensive
obscene wealth
obscene waste
obscenely adverb
Choose the Right Synonym for obscene

coarse, vulgar, gross, obscene, ribald mean offensive to good taste or morals.

coarse implies roughness, rudeness, or crudeness of spirit, behavior, or language.

found the coarse humor of coworkers offensive

vulgar often implies boorishness or ill-breeding.

a loud vulgar belch

gross implies extreme coarseness and insensitiveness.

gross eating habits

obscene applies to anything strongly repulsive to the sense of decency and propriety especially in sexual matters.

obscene language not allowed on the air

ribald applies to what is amusingly or picturesquely vulgar or irreverent or mildly indecent.

entertained the campers with ribald folk songs

Example Sentences

He was accused of making obscene phone calls. He made an obscene gesture at the driver who cut him off. The company's executives earn obscene salaries. He spends an obscene amount of money on clothes.
Recent Examples on the Web With the exception of active winter sports destinations like Greek Peak Mountain Resort and Bristol Mountain in Canandaigua, winter travel is a niche preference that comes with challenges, namely, an obscene amount of lake-effect snow. Jessica Ritz, Travel + Leisure, 25 May 2023 Executives rake in obscene amounts while laying off workers. Nina Metz, Chicago Tribune, 10 May 2023 The singer’s apology video was met with mixed reactions — some users dismissed her obscene comment as a mistake, and others questioned what steps the singers would take to support teachers. Alexandra Del Rosario, Los Angeles Times, 25 Apr. 2023 The department will be in charge of ruling whether books are obscene under the law. Peter Greene, Forbes, 13 Feb. 2023 Many parents have been shocked to discover the obscene and pornographic material found in our libraries. oregonlive, 26 Jan. 2023 There's no better way to demonstrate obscene wealth than by hiring Serena Williams, 23-time Grand Slam champion and one of the most talented athletes the world over, for a private, virtual training session. Sam Reed, Glamour, 23 Dec. 2022 Supporters have said the measure is needed to protect children from obscene material. Will Langhorne, Arkansas Online, 9 Mar. 2023 Raffaella's obscene wealth (and lack of life skills) comes into conflict with Gennarino's communist leanings as their power roles on the island are reversed. Maureen Lee Lenker, EW.com, 7 Mar. 2023 See More

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

Word History


borrowed from Middle French & Latin; Middle French, "offensively indecent," borrowed from Latin obscēnus, obscaenus "ill-omened, unpropitious, evoking disgust, loathsome, indecent, lewd," of uncertain origin

Note: M. de Vaan (Etymological Dictionary of Latin and the Other Italic Languages, Brill, 2008), following a suggestion by Ernout and Meillet, connects obscaenus (if this was the earliest form) with scaevus "left, on the left-hand side, inauspicious," and proposes an original *ob-skai-no- "coming from the left, unpropitious," from Indo-European *skeh2i- "in shadow."

First Known Use

1593, in the meaning defined at sense 1

Time Traveler
The first known use of obscene was in 1593

Dictionary Entries Near obscene

Cite this Entry

“Obscene.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/obscene. Accessed 10 Jun. 2023.

Kids Definition


ob·​scene äb-ˈsēn How to pronounce obscene (audio)
: very shocking to one's sense of what is moral or decent
obscenely adverb

Legal Definition


ob·​scene äb-ˈsēn How to pronounce obscene (audio)
: extremely or deeply offensive according to contemporary community standards of morality or decency see also Roth v. United States

Note: The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that obscene applies to materials that appeal predominantly to a prurient interest in sexual conduct, depict or describe sexual conduct in a patently offensive way, and lack serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value. Material or expression deemed obscene by the court is not protected by the free speech guarantee of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.


Middle French, from Latin obscenus obscaenus indecent, lewd

More from Merriam-Webster on obscene

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!