om·​i·​nous ˈä-mə-nəs How to pronounce ominous (audio)
: being or exhibiting an omen : portentous
especially : foreboding or foreshadowing evil : inauspicious
ominously adverb
ominousness noun

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The Difference Between Ominous, Portentous, and Fateful

Ominous didn't always mean "foreshadowing evil." If you look closely, you can see the omen in ominous, which gave it the original meaning of "presaging events to come"—whether good or bad. It is ultimately derived from the Latin word omen, which is both an ancestor and a synonym of our omen. Today, however, ominous tends to suggest a menacing or threatening aspect. Its synonyms portentous and fateful are used similarly, but ominous is the most menacing of the three. It implies an alarming character that foreshadows evil or disaster. Portentous suggests being frighteningly big or impressive, but seldom gives a definite forewarning of calamity. Fateful implies that something is of momentous or decisive importance.

Choose the Right Synonym for ominous

ominous, portentous, fateful mean having a menacing or threatening aspect.

ominous implies having a menacing, alarming character foreshadowing evil or disaster.

ominous rumblings from the volcano

portentous suggests being frighteningly big or impressive but now seldom definitely connotes forewarning of calamity.

an eerie and portentous stillness

fateful suggests being of momentous or decisive importance.

the fateful conference that led to war

Examples of ominous in a Sentence

Not many sets of initials became universally recognizable during the twentieth century, and those that did often had ominous overtones, from SS to KGB. Geoffrey Wheatcroft, Atlantic, March 2001
While politicians and multinational corporations extol the virtues of NAFTA … the ominous curtain is already up in a six-mile section at the border crossing at Mexicali … Leslie Marmon Silko, Yellow Woman and a Beauty of the Spirit, 1996
Fighting against sensations that sought to claim him, he moved nervously and the note in his hand rattled with a dry and ominous whisper. Richard Wright, Rite of Passage, 1994
Arranged in two long and ominous rows, the branding irons dangled from the ceiling in the center of the room, suggesting some sort of fence or jail … Lewis H. Lapham, Harper's, May 1993
an ominous threat of war He spoke in ominous tones. See More
Recent Examples on the Web Never’s ominous scoring, that makes viewers squirm. Ryan Faughnder, Los Angeles Times, 21 Nov. 2023 Here's everything to know about the ominous ending of 'The Hunger Games' prequel The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes will leave you on the edge of your seat until the very last scene. Kelsie Gibson, Peoplemag, 17 Nov. 2023 Founders Day is a contemporary murder-mystery set in a small town that is stricken by ominous killings on the eve of its tricentennial celebration and impending mayoral election. Alex Ritman, The Hollywood Reporter, 13 Nov. 2023 In September, industrial production fell more than expected by 1.4%, sending an ominous signal for the months to come. Prarthana Prakash, Fortune Europe, 8 Nov. 2023 The person would describe being taken into an alien spaceship, then dimly waking up, in a groggy half-consciousness, as they were being tinkered with in some ominous alien lab experiment. Owen Gleiberman, Variety, 31 Oct. 2023 Twelve months out from Election Day, the Presidential campaign has inescapably begun with the slow, ominous, upward crank of a roller coaster. Benjamin Wallace-Wells, The New Yorker, 12 Nov. 2023 The ominous sound of the destroyer ship Nomad and the giant futuristic military tank that wreaks havoc on humanity and AI make the film a grand cinematic experience. Jazz Tangcay, Variety, 10 Nov. 2023 The dreams themselves are creepily and memorably staged, with unsettling zooms, ominous noises and odd dashes of prosthetic gore. Justin Chang, Los Angeles Times, 9 Nov. 2023 See More

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

Word History


see omen

First Known Use

1580, in the meaning defined above

Time Traveler
The first known use of ominous was in 1580

Dictionary Entries Near ominous

Cite this Entry

“Ominous.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 28 Nov. 2023.

Kids Definition


om·​i·​nous ˈäm-ə-nəs How to pronounce ominous (audio)
: being or showing a sign of evil or misfortune to come
ominous clouds
ominously adverb

More from Merriam-Webster on ominous

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