I wonder about the difference between 'hideous', 'odious' and 'obnoxious'

All three of them share the following definition at oxforddictionaries.com

Extremely unpleasant

While I know that 'hideous' is often used to describe a visually ugly thing, I do not fathom what the subtle dissimilarities of these terms are when it comes to describing unpleasantness.

Note that I am a non-native speaker.

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  • What does the dictionary tell you, beyond "extremely unpleasant"? If nothing, try another dictionary. Oh, and what you cite is not what I see at the site cited (oxforddictionaries.com). – Drew Oct 12 '15 at 16:01

Hideous is typically used in the context of physical appearance. An extremely unattractive, or ugly person may be called "hideous".

Odious is typically used in the context of personality, and relates to "hate". It comes from the Latin word, "odium", which means "to hate".

Obnoxious is also typically used in context of personality, but reflects more annoyance than hate. A person with a bad habit, or unpleasant personality may be obnoxious, but you may not find them to be odious.

  • Hideous is rarely used in the US, and sounds effeminate and shrill to our ears. We say ugly. But the British use it. That Hideous Strength, a novel by C.S. Lewis. But Americans do say odious and obnoxious. Odious debt; an obnoxious personality. – Robert Menuet Oct 12 '15 at 20:54
  • 1
    As an native-English speaking American, I'll go ahead and disagree with you, but you're welcome to your opinion, of course. – phantom42 Oct 12 '15 at 21:50
  • @phantom42 Easy to misread as an English-speaking Native American ;-) – Rand al'Thor Oct 12 '15 at 22:28

I'd suggest looking at the etymology to find some clues. The words came from different sources, and the current nuances seem to be based to some extent on their original meanings.

(my approximate synonyms, with extracts from etymonline.com)

  • hideous - horrifying

    from Anglo-French hidous, Old French hideus, earlier hisdos "hideous, horrible, awful, frightening" (11c.; Modern French hideux), from hisda "horror, fear," perhaps of Germanic origin.

  • odious - hateful or offensive

    from Old French odieus (late 14c., Modern French odieux) or directly from Latin odiosus "hateful, offensive, unpleasant," from odium "hatred"

  • obnoxious - harmful

    from Latin obnoxiosus "hurtful, injurious," from obnoxius "subject, exposed to harm," from ob "to, toward" (see ob-) + noxa "injury, hurt, damage entailing liability"

Hopefully this gives you some idea about which to use depending on the type of 'unpleasantness' you're describing.

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