I was watching a Youtube cooking video, where an American chef says of a compliment that she receives:'he never gives gratuitous compliments, so I'll take it!'.

I was confused, as personally, I understood 'gratuitous' to roughly mean 'unnecessary/unjustified' and used with negative connotations, whereas this was positive and seemed to be used to roughly mean 'free'. I looked up a few dictionaries online, and there seem to be a slight variable in the number and priority of definitions.

Here are a few examples: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/gratuitous (American) https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/gratuitous (British) https://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/gratuitous (British)

My question is: do both American and British people use the two most common definitions quite commonly (ie. 1) meaning 'given unearned or without recompense' 2) meaning 'unnecessary, unjustified, and often harmful or upsetting) Or is there a pattern of use that differs between Americans and British? I ask because I (as a New Zealander - ie. from commonwealth nation) have never really heard anyone around me use 'gratuitous' to mean the former before, so wondering if it's a cultural thing, or just my lack of experience...XD Thank you:)

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    I think you are using a false premise: gratuitous in your example means exactly 'unnecessary', which is why the speaker says "never". Dec 25, 2017 at 12:19
  • Well the word comes from the Latin 'gratuitus' (meaning free - see etymonline.com/word/gratuitous), and the French word for 'free' is 'gratuit', so I (English person now living in France) do have the 'freely given' meaning in mind when I use it. But I do also understand it to mean 'unnecessary'. So, in answer to your question, I use the word to mean both (1) free, and (2) unnecessary. Dec 25, 2017 at 12:25
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    I am a US English speaker. In your example, it means "undeserved." An example of another common use: "This film has it's funny parts but I have to warn you, it has a lot of gratuitous sex." Meaning, the sex scenes aren't integrally connected to the plot, character development, artistic goals, etc. Hopefully a Britisher will now compare with UK usage. Dec 25, 2017 at 15:17
  • Strangely, I don't think of it as either unnecessary or undeserved. I think of it as empty. Something done as a matter of course whether appropriate or not, without any meaning other than being an act of habit. As such, it is necessary, and has nothing to do with whether it is deserved or not.
    – Phil Sweet
    Dec 25, 2017 at 16:38
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    The word has some recent frequency in the US when describing excessive and unrelated-to-the-plotline sex scenes and/or violence. We might say, "that movie was just rife with gratuitous violence (or sex)!" Dec 28, 2017 at 19:21

1 Answer 1


I'm a British English speaker.

I'm wondering if you're confused, not because you misunderstand its meaning, per se, but because you've always associated the word gratuitous with negative connotations?

Gratuitous doesn't really have negative or positive connotations in and of itself (it means free, uncalled for, or without good reason) the connotation will come from the noun its modifying. E.g. gratuitous violence being negative but gratuitous legal advice being positive.

In your example, the speaker realises that the person complimenting her doesn't throw them away freely, when uncalled for, or without good reason, so when a compliment is given, it's hard-earned, sincerely meant, and therefore very positive.

As for gratuitous violence or sex being more harmful or upsetting than violence that's integral to the plot, it's not really that it's any more harmful or upsetting, it's just annoyingly unnecessary, in that it's a cheap, blunt tool designed to shock, provoke or arouse a gullible audience, and that's why its connotations, in that context, are so negative.


  • There is no BrE/AmE thing here. It is exactly the same. Chefs are not known for their vocabulary; they are known for their cooking. :)
    – Lambie
    Jan 9, 2018 at 14:46
  • Lambie is absolutely right. Pointing out that I'm BrE wasn't meant to infer that there's any difference. I'm a writer. That might explain why I can't cook.
    – GGx
    Jan 9, 2018 at 15:21
  • What a brilliant expression... gonna have to squeeze that into a book at some point! Thx for the upvote!
    – GGx
    Jan 9, 2018 at 15:51

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