As I understand it, "ignorant" means "lacking in knowledge." Dictionary.com supports that belief.

1.lacking in knowledge or training; unlearned: an ignorant man.
2.lacking knowledge or information as to a particular subject or fact: ignorant of quantum physics.
3.uninformed; unaware.
4.due to or showing lack of knowledge or training: an ignorant statement."

But when I used it as a translation from what I believed to be the German equivalent, a native German speaker wrote,

"Well, I would actually avoid translating to ignorant as it would sound way more offensive then uneducated...The way Germans would use [th [e German equivalent] has a slight remark of disdain, but it's not even close to what would be in english to call someone ignorant."

The context was describing someone lacking in manners, or unaware of etiquette.

Does igorant "have a slight mark of disdain," or does it have much stronger connotations? And is "ignorant" or "uneducated" the better word for this context? This question is for a native speaker.

Bonus question: How would a German non-native speaker feel about use of the term "ignorant?"

  • 7
    With that said, calling someone flatly "ignorant" is likely to be interpreted as distinctly disdainful. And well it should be, based on the word's denotation alone. On the other hand, saying that someone is "ignorant of" some specific thing is likely to be interpreted much more mildly.
    – PellMel
    Jul 14, 2016 at 15:30
  • 3
    The "neutral" sense of ignorant simply means not knowing, unaware of. But fairly obviously that will often be conflated with incapable of knowing (due to lack of adequate mental ability; i.e. - stupid). So I think this is General Reference. And I don't see why it's relevant that German might have a similar term (that works either the same or different). Jul 14, 2016 at 15:47
  • 4
    A lot of an answer would rely on an analysis of the German word you're failing to tell us. Hiding that is hiding information that could help us. ELU is a site about English, but surely knowing about the German word and its nuances would help us inform you about the ways in which it corresponds to a proposed English word.
    – Mitch
    Jul 14, 2016 at 15:55
  • 3
    Also re 'ignorant' = 'lacking in knowledge' that's a very literal and etymological construction. Words aren't mathematical, so they often are not replaceable by their definitions. Ignorant mostly means dumb but in a slightly more fancy way. It may literally mean 'lacking factual knowledge (but still being able to reason clearly)', but it is used more informally as just plain stupid/lacking common sense.
    – Mitch
    Jul 14, 2016 at 15:59
  • 4
    Why are you so coy about the German word? (Was it by any chance ungebildet? If so, there is a long thread here).
    – TonyK
    Jul 14, 2016 at 19:04

5 Answers 5


Well I am taking the bonus part here.

The tricky thing about the English ignorant is that there are two words in German that are written the same ignorant and Ignorant, adjective and noun. On the surface the definition is about the same as in English - with the second one refering to a person of such characteristics.

Both have the dictionary addition regarding usage: bildungssprachlich abwertend. The first word has no direct translation. It's along the lines of used in language that requires a certain (high) level of education. The second however means more or less pejorative.

So there are two German words that sound and look the same that definitely have a negative connotation. So speaking German one would obviously pick a synonym without these connotations if you don't want to be that negative.

Since the plain dictionary definition of the pure sense of the word is almost the same in both languages in stands to reason that those negative connotations carry from the native language German over to English for some speakers.

Finally it would be interesting to see what it was translated from. If it actually was translated from the German term ignorant, you should certainly look for a word that definitely has negative connotations.

  • The word was "ungeblildet," which does not have the German connotations of "ignorant," but could have the connotations of the milder (non pejorative) English version.
    – Tom Au
    Jul 14, 2016 at 21:43
  • @Tom that's confusing. Which word is the milder version?
    – Mitch
    Jul 14, 2016 at 23:45
  • My argument is that the English "ignorant" is closer to the German "ungebildet" than the German "ignorant," because that and the English "ignorant" are "false friends."
    – Tom Au
    Jul 15, 2016 at 1:21
  • @TomAu - gebildet means refined. ungeblildet would mean unrefined. Still pejorative, but not nearly as much. "lacking in manners, or unaware of etiquette" = unrefined. That is, "the better word for this context." Google translate says, use : nicht raffiniert (but that is a question for those who speak Deutsch)
    – Mazura
    Jul 15, 2016 at 5:40

Saying "Alice is ignorant of the fine details of etiquette" is not too derogatory by itself; the specification of a detailed context focuses the connotation on simply being unaware/uninformed (note the latter two are even safer).

Saying "Alice is ignorant" is derogatory. Without any constraint you are implying that Alice is unaware/uninformed of things that are common knowledge, and thus she should be aware of.

Of course there are gradations "Alice is ignorant of basic table manners", basically means that Alice is a boor. It's less insulting than the global "Alice is ignorant", but still implies a negative judgment.

Note that "Bob is not stupid, he's just ignorant (about X)" is an idiomatic expression, which has charitable connotations.

In net, the negative judgment is not conveyed by the use of the word ignorant itself, but rather from an implied, or stated, social expectation that the person should know the information that he/she is ignorant of.

  • 3
    Succinct and true. +1
    – Daniel
    Jul 14, 2016 at 21:31

The meaning that I get from someone being called 'ignorant' is that they're not only unaware, but they also refuse to want to try to become aware. In this sense, ignorant is also connotative of stubbornness and being too stuck in one's own backward biases.*

In the old Webster's dictionary of 1913 this use of ignorant is shown to have Biblical origins, and is defined as:

  1. (Theol.) A willful neglect or refusal to acquire knowledge which one may acquire and it is his duty to have.

Webster's 1913 dictionary

The Bible quotes on ignorance:

"They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart."

"My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge; because you have rejected knowledge..."

Perhaps this is the reason that a common insult to call a racist/bigot is 'ignorant', because he would not only be lacking in knowledge, but he would be willfully lacking in knowledge, and this is an important distinction.

Google Ngram results for ignorant:

*Of course, this distinction doesn't apply to uses of the phrase 'ignorant of', which @Dave expounds on in his answer.

'Willfull/willfully' is a collocation of 'ignorant', found in the phrases 'willfull ignorance' or 'willfully ignorant': https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/willful_ignorance

In fact, this connotation is so obvious to me now that I've remembered the word 'ignore':

Oxford English dictionaries

Refuse to take notice of or acknowledge; disregard intentionally

The word ignore itself was created in the late 15th century from ignorant, which predates it by about a century. In fact, its original sense as a verb was merely to signify to be ignorant of, while the sense that is currently in use hadn't become popular until the 19th century!

etymonline etymology

ignore(v) - 1610s, "not to know, to be ignorant of," from French ignorer "be unaware of" (14c.), or directly from Latin ignorare "not to know, be unacquainted; take no notice of, disregard" (see ignorant). The original sense in English is obsolete. Sense of "pass over without notice, pay no attention to" in English first recorded 1801 (Barnhart says "probably a dictionary word"), and OED indicates it was uncommon before c. 1850.

  • 1
    I can't believe I forgot about the word 'ignore' -_- I hate my brain sometimes
    – user180089
    Jul 14, 2016 at 20:25
  • 4
    "a common insult to call a racist is 'ignorant'"—This is a really important point for a non-native speaker to know. Absent any context, I would read the statement "He's ignorant" to mean "He is a dirty, low-down bigot, but I'm trying to be polite about it."
    – 1006a
    Jul 14, 2016 at 21:00
  • @nedibes: not just racists; other kinds of prejudices work with "ignorant", too. Activists trying to "raise awareness of" something are trying to reduce the number of "ignorant" people, and often use this language. So it definitely has connotations of being part of the problem not part of the solution. (Where "the problem" depends on which activist is using the word, but this language is most commonly heard from advocates for more acceptance of diversity.) Jul 15, 2016 at 6:09
  • @PeterCordes Yes, it is used for many different "problems". In fact, I used the word "bigot" rather than "racist" in my quote intentionally, as it is theoretically ambiguous as to the particular brand of bigotry. If that ambiguity went unnoticed, it may be because in the US the issue of racism is so very very weighted that it tends to inform anything to which it becomes attached. Thus, like "prejudiced", "bigot" has become so associated with racism that, in the absence of any other context, it conflates with "racist". I put "ignorant" in this same category, though ymmv.
    – 1006a
    Jul 15, 2016 at 20:02
  • @nedibes: I posted an answer based on my previous comment. I think I noticed that you said "bigot", not "racist", but I wanted to explicitly point that out. I'm Canadian, where activists getting news coverage are most often talking about LGBTQ issues. I don't see/hear stuff like "he's ignorant" get used much at all, so I don't have a strong association either way, and just have to imagine how it gets used by other people. Jul 15, 2016 at 20:09

Activists trying to "raise awareness of" something are trying to reduce the number of "ignorant" people, and often use this language.

It definitely has connotations of being part of the problem not part of the solution. (Where "the problem" depends on who is using the word, but this language is most commonly heard from advocates for more acceptance of diversity.)

@V0ight's answer mentions this connotation, but I think it deserves to be expanded on. This is not the only connotation, but the existing answers do a good job covering the others.


A [German] Ignorant is actively being [English] ignorant. It rather translates to "an ignoring person" than "an ignorant person".

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