Merriam-Webster Word of the Day: Unctuous


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

What It Means

Unctuous is a formal word used to describe someone who speaks and behaves in a way that is meant to seem friendly and polite but that is unpleasant because it is obviously not sincere. It can also mean “fatty,” “oily,” and “smooth and greasy in texture or appearance.”

// Politicians are often at their most unctuous during election years, full of empty promises made solely to win over certain voters.

// Braising chicken thighs with their skins on creates a rich, unctuous sauce that can be spooned back over the finished dish.

UNCTUOUS in Context

“The fate of a sycophant is never a happy one. At first, you think that fawning over the boss is a good way to move forward. But when you are dealing with a narcissist … you can never be unctuous enough.” — Maureen Dowd, The New York Times, 18 June 2022

Did You Know?

Nowadays, unctuous usually has a negative connotation, but it originated as a term describing a positive act: that of healing. The word comes from the Latin verb unguere (“to anoint”), a root that also gave rise to the words unguent (“a soothing or healing salve”) and ointment. The oily nature of ointments may have led to the use of unctuous to describe things marked by an artificial gloss of sentimentality. An unctuous individual may mean well, but the person’s insincere effusiveness can leave an unwelcome residue—much like that of some ointments.

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