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From Late Middle English unctuous [and other forms],[1] borrowed from Medieval Latin ūnctuōsus (greasy, oily, unctuous), from Latin ūnctum (ointment; rich banquet; rich savoury dish) + -ōsus (suffix meaning ‘full of; overly’ forming adjectives from nouns). Ūnctum is a noun use of the perfect passive participle of unguō (to anoint; to smear with oil, to grease or oil),[2] from Proto-Indo-European *h₃engʷ- (to anoint; to smear).



unctuous (comparative more unctuous, superlative most unctuous)

  1. Of a liquid, semisolid, or other substance: having the nature or properties of an unguent or ointment; greasy, oily.
    Synonyms: mellowy, oleaginous, saponaceous, (Scotland) slaistery, slimy, (dated, rare) smarmy, (obsolete) unctious, (obsolete, rare) unctuose, unguinous; see also Thesaurus:unctuous
    Antonym: ununctuous
    • 1610 (first performance), Ben[jamin] Jonson, The Alchemist, London: [] Thomas Snodham, for Walter Burre, and are to be sold by Iohn Stepneth, [], published 1612, →OCLC; reprinted Menston, Yorkshire: The Scolar Press, 1970, →OCLC, Act II, scene ii, signature E, verso:
      It is, of the one part, / A humide exhalation, vvhich vve call / Materia liquida, or the Vnctuous VVater; []
    • a. 1692 (date written), Robert Boyle, “Title XXI. Of the Operation of the Air on the Consistency of Animal Substances.”, in The General History of the Air, [], London: [] Awnsham and John Churchill, [], published 1692, →OCLC, page 202:
      [H]e ſeveral time obſerved, that cutting a Cheeſe in tvvo, vvhen they vvere any thing near the Equinoctial, that moſt part of it vvould be very dry and brittle, and ſeem'd as if it vvere ſpoil'd: VVhereas the Parts about the middle vvere ſo fat and ſoft, as if all the unctuous Parts that vvere vvanting in the dried Portion of the Cheeſe had retired thither, and vvas betvveen Cream and Cheeſe.
    • 1791, Oliver Goldsmith, “Of Quadrupeds Covered with Scales or Shells instead of Hair”, in An History of the Earth, and Animated Nature. [], new edition, volume VI, London: [] F[rancis] Wingrave, successor to Mr. [John] Nourse, [], →OCLC, page 115:
      This tongue [of the pangolin] is round, extremely red, and covered vvith an unctuous and ſlimy liquor, vvhich gives it a ſhining hue. VVhen the pangolin, therefore, approaches an ant-hill, for theſe are the inſects on vvhich it chiefly feeds, it lies dovvn near it, concealing as much as poſſible the place of its retreat, and ſtretching out its long tongue among the ants, keeps it for ſome time quite immovable. Theſe little animals, allured by its appearance, and the unctuous ſubſtance vvith vvhich it is ſmeared, inſtantly gather upon it in great numbers; and vvhen the pangolin ſuppoſes a ſufficiency, it quickly vvithdravvs the tongue, and ſvvallovvs them at once.
    • 1820, Percy Bysshe Shelley, “The Sensitive Plant”, in Prometheus Unbound [], London: C[harles] and J[ames] Ollier [], →OCLC, part 3rd, page 170:
      And unctuous meteors from spray to spray / Crept and flitted in broad noon-day / Unseen; []
    • 1840 April – 1841 November, Charles Dickens, “Chapter the Eighteenth”, in The Old Curiosity Shop. A Tale. [], volume I, London: Chapman and Hall, [], published 1841, →OCLC, page 187:
      [H]e took off the lid of the iron pot and there rushed out a savoury smell, while the bubbling sound grew deeper and more rich, and an unctuous steam came floating out, hanging in a delicious mist above their heads— []
    • 1851 November 14, Herman Melville, “The Pequod Meets the Rose-Bud”, in Moby-Dick; or, The Whale, 1st American edition, New York, N.Y.: Harper & Brothers; London: Richard Bentley, →OCLC, page 455:
      Dropping his spade, he thrust both hands in, and drew out handfuls of something that looked like ripe Windsor soap, or rich mottled old cheese; very unctuous and savory withal. You might easily dent it with your thumb; it is of a hue between yellow and ash color. And this, good friends, is ambergris, worth a gold guinea an ounce to any druggist.
    • 1851 November 14, Herman Melville, “The Try-works”, in Moby-Dick; or, The Whale, 1st American edition, New York, N.Y.: Harper & Brothers; London: Richard Bentley, →OCLC, page 470:
      In a word, after being tried out, the crisp, shrivelled blubber, now called scraps or fritters, still contains considerable of its unctuous properties.
    • 1863, Nathaniel Hawthorne, “About Warwick”, in Our Old Home: A Series of English Sketches, Boston, Mass.: Ticknor and Fields, →OCLC, page 97:
      The kitchen is a lofty, spacious, and noble room, partitioned off round the fireplace, [] on either side of which is the omnipresent image of the Bear and Ragged Staff, three feet high, and excellently carved in oak, now black with time and unctuous kitchen-smoke.
  2. Having fat or oil present; fatty, greasy, oily.
    • 153[9], Thomas Elyot, “What Commoditie Happeneth by the Moderate Use of the Sayd Qualities of Meates and Drynkes”, in The Castel of Helth [], London: [] Thomæ Bertheleti [], →OCLC, book II, folio 18, verso:
      Meates fatte and vnctuouſe, nouryſheth, and maketh ſoluble.
    • 1610 (first performance), Ben[jamin] Jonson, The Alchemist, London: [] Thomas Snodham, for Walter Burre, and are to be sold by Iohn Stepneth, [], published 1612, →OCLC; reprinted Menston, Yorkshire: The Scolar Press, 1970, →OCLC, Act II, scene ii, signature [D3], recto:
      I my ſelfe vill haue / The beards of Barbels, ſeru'd, in ſtead of ſallades; / Oyld Muſhromes; and the ſvvelling vnctuous papps / Of a fat pregnant Sovv, nevvly cut off, / Dreſt vvith an exquiſite, and poynant ſauce; []
    • 1641 May, John Milton, Of Reformation Touching Church-Discipline in England: And the Cavvses that hitherto have Hindred it; republished as Will Taliaferro Hale, editor, Of Reformation Touching Church-Discipline in England (Yale Studies in English; LIV), New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1916, →OCLC, 2nd book, page 70:
      [H]ow can these men not be corrupt, [] warming their Palace Kitchins, and from thence their unctuous, and epicurean paunches, with the almes of the blind, the lame, the impotent, the aged, the orfan, the widow, []
    • 1791, Homer, W[illiam] Cowper, transl., “[The Iliad.] Book II.”, in The Iliad and Odyssey of Homer, Translated into Blank Verse, [], volume I, London: [] J[oseph] Johnson, [], →OCLC, page 52, lines 664–667:
      And Pallas rear'd him; her ovvn unctuous fane / She made his habitation, vvhere vvith bulls / The youth of Athens, and vvith ſlaughter'd lambs / Her annual vvorſhip celebrate.
    • 1836 March – 1837 October, Charles Dickens, “A Field-day and Bivouac—More New Friends; and an Invitation to the Country”, in The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, London: Chapman and Hall, [], published 1837, →OCLC, page 40:
      There was something in the sound of the last word, which roused the unctuous boy. He jumped up: and the leaden eyes, which twinkled behind his mountainous cheeks, leered horribly upon the food as he unpacked it from the basket.
    • 1856, R[alph] W[aldo] Emerson, “Character”, in English Traits, Boston, Mass.: Phillips, Sampson, and Company, →OCLC, page 141:
      High and low, they [English day-laborers] are of an unctuous texture. There is an adipocere in their constitution, as if they had oil for their mental wheels, and could perform vast amounts of work without damaging themselves.
  3. Of an aroma or taste, or a beverage (such as coffee or wine) or food (such as gravy, meat, or sauce): having layers of concentrated, velvety flavour; lush, rich.
    Synonym: savorous
    • 1675 April 4 (Gregorian calendar), Nehemiah Grew, “[Several Lectures Read before the Royal Society.] A Discourse of the Diversities and Causes of Tasts Chiefly in Plants. Read before the Royal Society, March 25. 1675. Chapter I. Of the Several Sorts of Simple and Compounded Tasts; and the Degrees of Both.”, in The Anatomy of Plants. [], [London]: [] W. Rawlins, for the author, published 1682, →OCLC, part, page 280:
      Again, Taſts may properly be ſaid, to be Soft or Hard. A Soft Taſte, is either Vapid, as in VVatery Bodies, VVhites of Eggs, Starch, Fine Boles, &c. Or Unctuous, as in Oyls, Fat, &c. [] Contrary to an Unctuous Taſte, are Aſtringent, and Pungent; as in Galls, and Spirit of Sal Aromanick.
    • 1866 January, Bayard Taylor, “Beauty and the Beast. A Story of Old Russia.”, in Beauty and the Beast: And Tales of Home, New York, N.Y.: G[eorge] P[almer] Putnam & Sons, [], published 1872, →OCLC, section III, page 15:
      The halls and passages of the castle were already permeated with rich and unctuous smells, and a delicate nose might have picked out and arranged, by their finer or coarser vapors, the dishes preparing for the upper and lower tables.
    • 2000 January 28, Oliver Burkeman, “Things that make you go yum”, in Alan Rusbridger, editor, The Guardian[1], London: Guardian News & Media, →ISSN, →OCLC, archived from the original on 2023-05-30:
      "Unctuous is probably quite a good description, but there's a sweetness, too, and a mouthfeel," ventures Heston Blumenthal, chef at the Fat Duck at Bray.
  4. Of soil: soft and sticky.
    • 1675 May 9 (Gregorian calendar), J[ohn] Evelyn, A Philosophical Discourse of Earth, Relating to the Culture and Improvement of It for Vegetation, and the Propagation of Plants, &c. [], London: [] John Martyn, printer to the Royal Society, published 1676, →OCLC:
      Furthermore, good and excellent Earth ſhould be of the ſame conſtitution, and not of contrary, as ſoft and hard; churliſh and mild; moiſt and dry; not too unctuous nor too lean, but reſoluble, and of a juſt and procreative temper, combining into a light, and eaſily crumbling Mould; []
    • 1707, J[ohn] Mortimer, “Of Chalk”, in The Whole Art of Husbandry; or, The Way of Managing and Improving of Land. [], 2nd edition, London: [] J[ohn] H[umphreys] for H[enry] Mortlock [], and J[onathan] Robinson [], published 1708, →OCLC, book IV, page 70:
      Chalk is of tvvo Sorts, the hard dry ſtrong Chalk, vvhich is the beſt for Lime; and a ſoft unctuous Chalk, vvhich is the beſt for Lands, becauſe it eaſily diſſolves vvith Rain and Froſt.
    • 1777, William Robertson, “Notes and Illustrations. Note LIV.”, in The History of America, volume I, London: [] W[illiam] Strahan; T[homas] Cadell, []; Edinburgh: J. Balfour, →OCLC, page 470:
      Sometimes they kill ſome game, ſometimes they catch fiſh, but in ſuch ſmall quantities, that their hunger is ſo extreme as compels them to eat ſpiders, the eggs of ants, vvorms, lizards, ſerpents, a kind of unctuous earth, and I am perſuaded, that if in this country there vvere any ſtones, they vvould ſvvallovv theſe.
    • 1863, Nathaniel Hawthorne, “Recollections of a Gifted Woman”, in Our Old Home: A Series of English Sketches, Boston, Mass.: Ticknor and Fields, →OCLC, page 114:
      What a hardy plant was [William] Shakespeare's genius, how fatal its development, since it could not be blighted in such an atmosphere! It only brought human nature the closer to him, and put more unctuous earth about his roots.
  5. (figurative) Of a person:
    1. Complacent, self-satisfied, smug.
    2. Profusely polite, especially in an insincere and unpleasant manner.
      Synonyms: greasy, oily, oleaginous, slimy, smarmy; see also Thesaurus:sycophantic

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Related terms[edit]



  1. ^ unctuǒus, adj.”, in MED Online, Ann Arbor, Mich.: University of Michigan, 2007.
  2. ^ Compare “unctuous, adj.”, in OED Online Paid subscription required, Oxford, Oxfordshire: Oxford University Press, March 2023; “unctuous, adj.”, in Lexico, Dictionary.com; Oxford University Press, 2019–2022.

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