su·​per·​cil·​ious ˌsü-pər-ˈsi-lē-əs How to pronounce supercilious (audio)
: coolly and patronizingly haughty
reacted to their breach of etiquette with a supercilious smile
superciliously adverb
superciliousness noun

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What is the origin of supercilious?

Arrogant and disdainful types tend to raise an eyebrow at anything they consider beneath them. The original supercilious crowd must have shown that raised-eyebrow look often, because the adjective supercilious derives from "supercilium," Latin for eyebrow. (We plucked our adjective and its meaning from the Latin adjective superciliosus.) "Supercilious" has been used to describe the censoriously overbearing since the late 1600s, but there was a time in the 1700s when it was also used as a synonym of another "supercilium" descendent, "superciliary" ("of, relating to, or adjoining the eyebrow"). Although the eyebrow sense of "supercilious" is now obsolete, it does help explain what ornithologist John Latham meant in 1782 when he described a "Supercilious K[ingfisher]" with a narrow orange stripe over its eyes.

Choose the Right Synonym for supercilious

proud, arrogant, haughty, lordly, insolent, overbearing, supercilious, disdainful mean showing scorn for inferiors.

proud may suggest an assumed superiority or loftiness.

too proud to take charity

arrogant implies a claiming for oneself of more consideration or importance than is warranted.

a conceited and arrogant executive

haughty suggests a consciousness of superior birth or position.

a haughty aristocrat

lordly implies pomposity or an arrogant display of power.

a lordly condescension

insolent implies contemptuous haughtiness.

ignored by an insolent waiter

overbearing suggests a tyrannical manner or an intolerable insolence.

an overbearing supervisor

supercilious implies a cool, patronizing haughtiness.

an aloof and supercilious manner

disdainful suggests a more active and openly scornful superciliousness.

disdainful of their social inferiors

Examples of supercilious in a Sentence

While Americans did congregate together at baseball games, … amusement parks, dance halls and arcades, tensions still roiled. The middle class may not have been as supercilious as the elites it replaced, but middle-class reformers were every bit as strident as those elites in condemning … working-class entertainments, and for the same reason: These entertainments constituted a challenge to the class's social control. Neal Gabler, Life: The Movie, 1998
Cross' popular academic sleuth Kate Fansler returns, this time as a guest professor at the down-at-the-heels Schuyler Law School, where she has been asked to teach a course on literature and the law. Ardent feminist Kate soon finds that not only is Schuyler a bastion of intolerant, supercilious white males, but worse, any attempt by women or minorities to be heard is quickly quashed by the old-boy network. Emily Melton, Booklist, 15 Dec. 1994
Jorgeson had a sharp tongue and was so supercilious in his remarks that I didn't know quite how seriously I should take this talk, but I enjoyed his humor and I did believe he had the sensibilities of an artist. Thom Jones, New Yorker, 2 Dec. 1991
the supercilious art dealer rolled her eyes when we asked if she had anything for under $1,000
Recent Examples on the Web Once the Duke of Wellington shows up at Waterloo, the fact that he’s played with such supercilious glee by the perpetually sneering Rupert Everett comes as a welcome relief. Ann Hornaday, Washington Post, 21 Nov. 2023 The death of John Mahoney, in 2018, robbed the revival of another beloved character, the Crane brothers’ proudly proletarian father; an audience surrogate, Martin regarded his sons with supercilious incomprehension from his lumpy recliner, beer in hand. Colin Marshall, The New Yorker, 26 Oct. 2023 In addition to sterling work by the three young principals, Ian Hart gives a standout performance as the British High Commissioner’s ubiquitous righthand man, offering a supercilious, world-weary gravitas that seemingly epitomizes the official British attitude to the Mandate. Alissa Simon, Variety, 17 Sep. 2023 The Provincial Lady has female literary friends in London, keeps up with the latest fiction, and regularly interacts with the supercilious Lady Boxe, the well-meaning Vicar’s Wife and the repulsively saccharine valetudinarian Mrs. Blenkinsop. Michael Dirda, Washington Post, 5 July 2023 All supercilious swagger, Jack Riddiford is a lean, mean Mercutio. David Benedict, Variety, 15 June 2023 Billy Eugene Jones plays both Rev and Pap, and the two come across as different kinds of preening tyrant: one supercilious and the other more aggressive yet both pumped up with machismo. Vulture, 12 Apr. 2023 Everywhere, Fatland is confronted by supercilious officials or hostile bureaucrats. Michael Dirda, Washington Post, 12 Jan. 2023 However, never come off as having an ego or with a supercilious attitude. Jane Hanson, Forbes, 28 Dec. 2022 See More

These examples are programmatically compiled from various online sources to illustrate current usage of the word 'supercilious.' 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 superciliosus, from supercilium eyebrow, haughtiness, from super- + -cilium eyelid (akin to celare to hide) — more at hell

First Known Use

1543, in the meaning defined above

Time Traveler
The first known use of supercilious was in 1543


Dictionary Entries Near supercilious

Cite this Entry

“Supercilious.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 1 Dec. 2023.

Kids Definition


su·​per·​cil·​ious ˌsü-pər-ˈsil-ē-əs How to pronounce supercilious (audio)
: coolly and disdainfully proud : snobbish
superciliously adverb
superciliousness noun

More from Merriam-Webster on supercilious

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