con·​tempt kən-ˈtem(p)t How to pronounce contempt (audio)
: the act of despising : the state of mind of one who despises : disdain
glared at him in contempt
: lack of respect or reverence for something
acting with contempt for public safety
: the state of being despised
: willful disobedience to or open disrespect of a court, judge, or legislative body
contempt of court

Frequently Asked Questions

What does 'in contempt' mean?

A person may be held in contempt in a number of ways. The legal sense may be defined as "willful disobedience to or open disrespect of a court, judge, or legislative body." In a general sense if you hold someone in contempt it simply means that you despise or strongly disapprove of them.

Is the word contempt a verb?

Contempt is typically a noun: people feel contempt, for example, or they act with contempt. The word is, however, also a verb, but as a verb it is archaic, and may be viewed as a mistake. It is synonymous with the verb contemn, which, although somewhat obscure, is not archaic.

Does contempt mean "disdain"?

In many ways the words are synonymous; one may be said to have either disdain or contempt for a thing one scorns, without a significant change in meaning. Disdain more commonly functions as a verb (the verb sense of contempt is no longer in common use), so one would write "I disdained the offer" rather than "I contempted the offer." And contempt is found used in legal settings (in the phrase contempt of court, for instance), while disdain is not.

Examples of contempt in a Sentence

There, in the tall grass and the jungle, many would fall and the rest would return home to endure the sullen contempt of their fellow citizens, all to no purpose. A. J. Bacevich, Commonweal, 12 Sept. 1997
I even read a mild contempt into this first-name business, comparable to the old habit of calling men Mac, Ace, Chief, or Buddy, or calling women Honey, Sweetie, or Doll. Aristides, American Scholar, Summer 1996
The same contempt for the poor that suggests kids are better off in orphanages will mobilize resistance to the orphanages themselves. Katha Pollitt, Nation, 12 Dec. 1994
… they looked with contempt at the bloodless gray arthritic hands of the old woman … Alice Walker, In Love & Trouble, 1973
He feels that wealthy people view him with contempt because he is poor. He spoke with contempt in his voice. She has displayed a profound contempt for her opponents. She was arrested for contempt of court. See More
Recent Examples on the Web Unsurprisingly, given the tenor of the discourse surrounding the war, while there is some support for the accounts, content from these channels is far more often met with contempt, dismissed as propaganda, or ridiculed. Miles Klee, Rolling Stone, 10 Nov. 2023 The political strategist was found guilty in July 2022 of two counts of criminal contempt of Congress for defying a subpoena from the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol. Robert Legare, CBS News, 9 Nov. 2023 The Reels brothers were held in contempt of court for nearly eight years. Jade Lawson, ABC News, 27 Oct. 2023 According to John and Julie Gottman, experts on marital issues, contempt is the No. 1 predictor for divorce. Sahaj Kaur Kohli, Washington Post, 26 Oct. 2023 For various, and often starkly opposing, reasons other modern artists who have been the subject of disdain and contempt from the general public, the media and/or the establishment (or all three) include Chris Brown, Michael Jackson and Madonna, to name a few. Howard Murphy, Rolling Stone, 20 Oct. 2023 He was convicted of contempt of Congress for failing to comply with a subpoena from the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection. Seema Mehta, Los Angeles Times, 29 Sep. 2023 After both men refused to leave their homes, defying trespassing orders while the family continued to press their case, they were jailed for civil contempt in 2011. Lisa Kennedy, Variety, 28 Sep. 2023 Pialat delicately balances empathy for the men’s narrow lives with contempt for their moral sloth, giving his film the terse naturalism and the whiplash sting of an ironic, erotic short story by Maupassant. Richard Brody, The New Yorker, 22 Sep. 2023 See More

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

Word History


Middle English, borrowed from Anglo-French & Latin; Anglo-French, borrowed from Latin contemptus, from contemnere "to look down on, show no respect for, despise" + -tus, suffix of action nouns (with loss of n and intrusive p) — more at contemn

First Known Use

14th century, in the meaning defined at sense 1a

Time Traveler
The first known use of contempt was in the 14th century

Dictionary Entries Near contempt

Cite this Entry

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

Kids Definition


con·​tempt kən-ˈtem(p)t How to pronounce contempt (audio)
: the act of despising : the state of mind of one who despises
: the state of being despised
: disobedience or disrespect to a court, judge, or legislature

Legal Definition


con·​tempt kən-ˈtempt How to pronounce contempt (audio)
: willful disobedience or open disrespect of the orders, authority, or dignity of a court or judge acting in a judicial capacity by disruptive language or conduct or by failure to obey the court's orders
also : the offense of contempt

called also contempt of court

civil contempt
: contempt that consists of disobedience to a court order in favor of the opposing party

Note: The sanctions for civil contempt end upon compliance with the order.

constructive contempt
: indirect contempt in this entry
criminal contempt
: contempt consisting of conduct that disrupts or opposes the proceedings or power of the court

Note: The sanctions for criminal contempt are designed to punish as well as to coerce compliance.

direct contempt
: contempt committed in the presence of the court or in a location close enough to disrupt the court's proceedings
indirect contempt
: contempt (as disobedience of a court order) that occurs outside of the presence of the court
: willful disobedience to a lawful order of or willful obstruction of a legislative body in the course of exercising its powers
contempt of Congress

More from Merriam-Webster on contempt

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