So I looked up the term contempt and found this definition:

The feeling that a person or a thing is worthless or beneath consideration:

I also found a synonym, disdain

The feeling that someone or something is unworthy of one’s consideration or respect

Then I found scorn and things got sort of confusing

A feeling and expression of contempt or disdain for someone or something:

Can someone explain, to a non-native speaker, when each variant would be appropriate?

I am aware of the different word classes. Oxforddictionaries.com clasifies scorn as a mass noun as well, though. Hence, I was confused if there are subtle, different connotations

Edit Also, how would I use them? Do I possess scorn towards something? Or would I rather feel it for it?

  • 2
    Well, note the word-class / part-of-speech information as well: contempt is a noun. Both scorn and disdain are verbs. To make a verbal equivalent of scorn*/*disdain using contempt, you'd have to say something like "hold in contempt".
    – Dan Bron
    Commented Jul 15, 2015 at 10:13
  • Thanks @DanBron Oxforddictionaries.com classifies scorn as a mass noun as well, though. Hence, I was wondering if there are subtle, different connotations Commented Jul 15, 2015 at 10:15
  • You're right, scorn can be used as a mass noun. My comment wasn't intended as a complete answer, just pointing out one pertinent point which may help you.
    – Dan Bron
    Commented Jul 15, 2015 at 10:16
  • 1
    contempt has meaning in a legal context, so may appear more formal. From first person voice, disdain sounds better than scorn
    – Kim Ryan
    Commented Jul 15, 2015 at 10:32

3 Answers 3


The definition for "contempt" @vocabulary.com: ...an extreme lack of respect, may help to clarify the subtle differences in usage. If you think of "contempt" as "an extreme lack of respect," then it follows that the object of your contempt is something that should command (some) respect:

"The workers had nothing but contempt for their manager."

"Disdain" is often reserved for people/things which would be 'looked down upon' by their very nature, or innate lack of value:

"The wedding guests did not conceal their disdain, as they stepped over the wino - who was passed out on the church steps."

"Scorn" is not used very often, in spoken AmE. It can be similar to "disdain" and "contempt", but the feeling of it is not as permanently damning:

"The look of scorn on my mother's face, told me to go back to my room, to put on a jacket and tie."

  • Oh, it can be much more damning, since after-all: "Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned." Then again, whether that means you've scorned her or earned her scorn may be debatable...
    – Tonepoet
    Commented Jul 15, 2015 at 12:53
  • @Tonepoet -That's why I qualified it with "permanently" - The 'fury of Hell' can often be quenched quite effectively with a nice piece of jewelry.
    – Oldbag
    Commented Jul 15, 2015 at 12:59
  • That is a good point which is indeed often but perhaps not always true: Alimony can seem quite permanent...
    – Tonepoet
    Commented Jul 15, 2015 at 13:08

Scorn is usually action or implies action Contempt is more of an attitude or a judgment made

"open or unqualified contempt" at http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/scorn

So scorn can be thought of as open, obvious, or very apparent contempt Contempt does not necessarily imply openness. Someone can be held in contempt by another without the other person necessarily knowing it. Scorn however usually is not hidden. http://the-difference-between.com/disdain/scorn Contempt is the mental judgment, disdain is the feeling it produces, and scorn is the display of it. The words can be interchangeable to a degree but contempt doesn't usually imply an action, and scorn usually doesn't refer to a hidden attitude.


To me, the sense of each word is slightly different. Contempt would be an active negative feeling for someone (usually a person); it implies the person is or has done something disgusting. Disdain is more passive, and not so often directed towards a person. To feel contempt implies a very negative judgement whereas disdain means to feel something is unworthy. I might have contempt for a pro-Nazi work of art, but disdain for a poorly rendered work of art.
Scorn is closer to contempt but less serious. I scorn your attempt to apologize for being late for the eighth time this year.

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