Merriam-Webster Word of the Day: Contretemps

The Merriam-Webster Word of the Day is contretemps. Read on for what it means, how it’s used, and more.

What It Means

The word contretemps refers to an inconvenient or embarrassing occurrence or situation. It can also refer to a dispute or argument.

// Jacqueline found herself in the middle of an embarrassing contretemps when her client suddenly changed his story and, ignoring her advice, spoke to reporters.

// There was a bit of a contretemps over the seating arrangements during wedding planning.


“While reading is a foundational skill, it is not a natural one. … There are many schools of thought on how best to aid this process, but the main contretemps has been about whether kids need to be taught how to sound out words explicitly or whether, if you give them enough examples and time, they’ll figure out the patterns.” — Belinda Luscombe, Time, 11 Aug. 2022

Did You Know?

When contretemps first appeared in English in the 1600s, it did so in the context of fencing: a contretemps was a thrust or pass made at the wrong time, whether the wrongness of the time had to do with one’s lack of skill or an opponent’s proficiency. From the fencing bout contretemps slid gracefully onto the dance floor, a contretemps being a step danced on an unaccented beat. Both meanings are in keeping with the word’s French roots, contre- (meaning “counter”) and temps (meaning “time”). (The word’s English pronunciation is also in keeping with those roots: \KAHN-truh-tahn\.) By the late 1700s, contretemps had proved itself useful outside of either activity by referring to any embarrassing or inconvenient mishap—something out of sync or rhythm with social conventions. The sense meaning “dispute” or “argument” arrived relatively recently, in the 20th century, perhaps coming from the idea that if you step on someone’s toes, literally or figuratively, a scuffle might ensue.

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