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?

At the heart of portentous is portent, a word for an omen or sign, which comes to us from the Latin noun portentum of the same meaning. And indeed, the first uses of portentous did refer to omens. The second sense of portentous, describing that which is extremely impressive, developed in the 16th century. A third definition—"grave, solemn, significant"—was then added to the second edition of Webster's New International Dictionary in 1934. The word's connotations, however, have since moved into less estimable territory. It now frequently describes 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 The portentous rite unfolded in front of the Lakhta Center tower, the country’s tallest building, as well as the $1.7 billion headquarters of Gazprom, the state-run gas company that has become another crucial symbol of Putin’s Russia. Andrei Kolesnikov, Foreign Affairs, 22 Aug. 2023 Flashy graphics and portentous music splashed across television screens. Rory Smith, New York Times, 14 July 2023 Three books chart significant portentous demographic trends underway in the United States. Kevin Munger, Foreign Affairs, 28 Feb. 2023 Bad as smash-crash-bash can be, portentous smash-crash-bash is far worse. Mark Feeney, BostonGlobe.com, 14 June 2023 Further testing showed the portentous bump in the data to be just a statistical anomaly. Nathaniel Scharping, Discover Magazine, 22 Nov. 2016 An undercurrent of darkness and portentous mystery courses throughout — evoked by low-stirring reeds, a crisscross of percussionists and drummers, or the band members’ baritones uniting in a chanted chorus. Giovanni Russonello, New York Times, 27 Oct. 2020 The interlude gave body and soul a brief respite from all the portentous solemnity of a ceremony that marched in time to tradition but at times felt out of step with this world. Peter Marks, Washington Post, 6 May 2023 As the arc of the show grows increasingly macabre, some of the portentous weight of birthing — the need to make the perfect choices, to give birth in an ideal and aspirational way — gives way to a wicked sense of fun. Alexandra Kleeman, New York Times, 21 Apr. 2023 See More

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 29 Sep. 2023.

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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