con·​temp·​tu·​ous kən-ˈtem(p)-chə-wəs How to pronounce contemptuous (audio)
: manifesting, feeling, or expressing deep hatred or disapproval : feeling or showing contempt
contemptuously adverb
contemptuousness noun

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What Is the Difference Between contemptuous and contemptible?

Contemptuous and contemptible are sometimes confused with each other. This is neither surprising, as they are similar in appearance, nor is it unprecedented: the words were used interchangeably for several hundred years (from the 16th through the 18th century), with each one meaning both "deserving contempt" and "showing contempt." By the early 19th century, some commentators began raising objections when the words were used synonymously, suggesting that they should be distinguished, with contemptuous meaning only "showing contempt" and contemptible only "deserving contempt."

In the following passage, for example, a would-be critic is ridiculed for using contemptible in the sense "showing contempt":

“Young man! my opinion of you is very contemptible.” “All your opinions are contemptible,” rejoined Phillip, quietly.  – Garry Avenel, Zou Mou, in The Iris, September, 1841

The distinction hinted at in this rebuke has been observed in English, by professional writers anyway, for close to 200 years.

Example Sentences

He owned a fine Kentucky rifle, with a cherry wood stock, and was contemptuous of the bulky carbines most of the troop had adopted. Larry McMurtry, Dead Man's Walk, 1995
In his 1978 Harvard commencement address, Mr. Solzhenitsyn seemed at times contemptuous of American democracy … Daniel Patrick Moynihan, New York Times Book Review, 24 Nov. 1991
He felt familiar enough to indulge in outbursts of rage or contemptuous sarcasm in her presence, and to display the most withering side of his character, lashing out at the people he despised. Cynthia Ozick, New Yorker, 20 Nov. 1989
loutish tourists who are contemptuous of the ways and traditions of their host countries contemptuous comments about the baseball team's pathetic showings
Recent Examples on the Web Cheers to the reunion of one of TV's most hilariously contemptuous couples! Brandon Livesay, Peoplemag, 1 Mar. 2023 As Republicans have grown more contemptuous of democratic institutions, Democrats have lent them more conspicuous support. Timothy Noah, The New Republic, 7 Nov. 2022 Events like the derailment in East Palestine are opportunities to advance a cynical narrative in the most contemptuous possible way. Alex Shephard, The New Republic, 22 Feb. 2023 From time to time, too, the camera aligns itself with the silent, contemptuous gaze of Ragnar (Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson), the Icelandic farmer hired to guide Lucas on his way north. Justin Changfilm Critic, Los Angeles Times, 9 Feb. 2023 But the state broke for Joe Biden in 2020, prompting fringe conspiracies and contemptuous non-concessions to proligerate for years since. Philip Elliott, Time, 20 Jan. 2023 Criminals in West Oakland were heavily armed and contemptuous of law enforcement. Ali Winston, Rolling Stone, 9 Jan. 2023 Hitchcock’s dryly sinister prime-time persona—perched, like one of his malevolent crows, on the tightrope between magisterial narcissism and gently contemptuous self-deprecation—was a sustained, good-natured joke. Adam Nayman, The New Yorker, 25 Oct. 2022 After Dobbs, the media portrayed the Court as antidemocratic, counter-majoritarian, and contemptuous of public opinion. WSJ, 15 Nov. 2022 See More

These example sentences are selected automatically from various online news sources to reflect current usage of the word 'contemptuous.' Views expressed in the examples do not represent the opinion of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback.

Word History


probably borrowed from Medieval Latin contemptuōsus, from Latin contemptu-, stem of contemptus contempt + -ōsus -ous

First Known Use

1574, in the meaning defined above

Time Traveler
The first known use of contemptuous was in 1574

Dictionary Entries Near contemptuous

Cite this Entry

“Contemptuous.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 24 Mar. 2023.

Kids Definition


con·​temp·​tu·​ous kən-ˈtem(p)-ch(ə-w)əs How to pronounce contemptuous (audio)
: feeling or showing contempt
contemptuously adverb
contemptuousness noun

More from Merriam-Webster on contemptuous

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