por·​ten·​tous pȯr-ˈten-təs How to pronounce portentous (audio)
: of, relating to, or constituting a portent
suspense, portentous foreshadowing, hints of sinister and violent mysteriesFrancine Prose
: eliciting amazement or wonder : prodigious
: being a grave or serious matter
portentous decisions
: self-consciously solemn or important : pompous
portentous declamation unsalted by the least trace of humorW. H. Pritchard
: ponderously excessive
that discipline's overwrought, portentous phrasesR. M. Coles
portentously adverb
portentousness noun

Did you know?

“If it wasn’t for bad luck / You know I wouldn’t have no luck at all.” So sang Albert King on the 1967 song “Born Under a Bad Sign,” written by Booker T. Jones (of Booker T. and the MG’s) and soul singer William Bell. He may have been singing about the ominous portent of being born during an unfavorable astrological alignment, but the classic tune became a standard of the blues. Portents are also at the heart of the adjective portentous, which describes things forewarning future events—usually events of the bad luck variety. Both portent and portentous come from the Latin noun portentum, meaning “omen or sign.” Since entering English in the 15th century, portentous has picked up additional senses, including “grave, solemn, significant” (as in “burdened with making portentous decisions”), which was added to our dictionary in 1934. It’s more recently moved into less estimable semantic territory, describing both the pompous and the excessive.

Choose the Right Synonym for portentous

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 portentous in a Sentence

an eerie and portentous stillness hung over the camp the night before the battle in 1969 people regarded the first landing on the moon as a truly portentous event
Recent Examples on the Web After reams of the post-liberals’ portentous obscurities, Lefebvre’s cutting clarity comes as a relief. Becca Rothfeld, Washington Post, 3 July 2024 The first is to speak in the hushed, portentous tones that have signified Serious Blockbusters for decades. Nate Jones, Vulture, 1 Mar. 2024 This portentous graveyard of classicizing form is in part a dark joke at the artist’s expense. Nancy Princenthal, New York Times, 16 May 2024 GiveWell’s Karnofsky moved to an EA philanthropy that gives out hundreds of millions of dollars a year and staffed up institutes with portentous names like Global Priorities and The Future of Humanity. Leif Wenar, WIRED, 27 Mar. 2024 See all Example Sentences for portentous 

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

Word History

First Known Use

15th century, in the meaning defined at sense 1

Time Traveler
The first known use of portentous was in the 15th century


Dictionary Entries Near portentous

Cite this Entry

“Portentous.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/portentous. Accessed 24 Jul. 2024.

Kids Definition


por·​ten·​tous pȯr-ˈtent-əs How to pronounce portentous (audio)
: being a portent : threatening
: causing wonder
portentously adverb
portentousness noun

More from Merriam-Webster on portentous

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