I can describe someone as profoundly deaf, but I don't seem to see the same adverb used to describe other conditions. This observation is supported by Google Books data.

Why is deafness specifically being associated with the word profound?

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    Just for interest - 1820 to 2019 - 'profoundly' deaf/blind/dumb/disabled Ngram. Up-voted +1,
    – Nigel J
    Jul 23 at 12:34
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    Oxford Languages give 'a profoundly disturbing experience', Dictionary.com 'Her songs range from light and humorous to profoundly moving', 'We currently live in a global order that is profoundly unjust', 'This attribution caused generations of parents, but women especially, to feel profoundly guilty for their children’s disorders', 'If you’re expecting it to look profoundly different than your current iPhone 11', 'The Savages have often been present, always profoundly silent and reverent', 'He seemed profoundly attentive'. It's a rather semantically bleached intensifier. But in the medical ... Jul 23 at 13:06
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    domain, it does seem restricted to use with sensory and especially cognitive impairment. Jul 23 at 13:07
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    I don't think this question should be closed. The medical usage of profound is not easily available in dictionaries. Please reopen.
    – fev
    Jul 23 at 15:01
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    To add to @fev, I am actually aware of the medical definition of profound w.r.t. deafness. But still, why did the medical field choose to use the word profound in the scale of deafness? There is a scale of blindness as well, yet profound isn't used there: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Visual_impairment
    – nialv7
    Jul 23 at 23:35

2 Answers 2


Deafness is measured on a scale of decibels and if hearing fails below a certain level, it is called profound:

Profound deafness: Anybody who cannot hear a sound below 90dB has profound deafness. (Medical News Today)

This site provides the whole scale:

Based on British Society of Audiology definitions of hearing loss, this is the decibel hearing level range each of these terms refer to:

  • mild (21–40 dB)
  • moderate (41–70 dB)
  • severe (71–95 dB)
  • profound (95 dB).(NDCS)

Profound is often used medically to describe the noun disability/-ies:

A profound and multiple learning disability (PMLD) is when a person has a severe learning disability and other disabilities that significantly affect their ability to communicate and be independent. (NHS)

However, I have also seen it with other particular medical conditions: profound associated with memory loss:

The term amnesia is derived from the Greek a- (without) - mnesis (memory), and at a broad level, amnesia can be defined as a profound loss of memory. The extensive impacts of this condition mean that individuals with amnesia usually require assistance in daily life. (National Library of Medicine)

Blindness can also be labelled as profound:

20/500 to 20/1000, this is considered profound visual impairment or profound low vision. (AmOptometricAssociation)

In combination with loss, this Ngram identifies some other medical uses of profound: enter image description here

  • 3
    And of course there is the literal sense of profound=deep, particularly associated with the sea. Perhaps more common in the past, and some senses (such as the noun) are now marked as archaic.
    – Stuart F
    Jul 23 at 12:05
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    profound is really only used with things that could have different degrees. "Blindness", for whatever reason, is usually treated more like a binary. So you can have profound visual impairment, but not profound blindness.
    – fectin
    Jul 24 at 13:06
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    @fectin I'm not sure that's the case, can you support that assertion? Jul 24 at 13:56
  • @AzorAhai-him-: My experience/intuition (as a native BrE speaker) agrees with fectin’s. Some rough evidence: ngrams confirms that deaf gets qualified with degrees — very deaf, a little deaf, etc — significantly more often than blind does. (blind vs deaf, very blind vs very deaf, a little blind vs a litte deaf)
    – PLL
    Jul 24 at 22:22
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    Ah, I learned something new today. I kinda understood "profound deafness" to be similar to "congenital deafness" (i.e., from birth)
    – justhalf
    Jul 25 at 2:08

Evolving dictionary definitions of 'profound'

The sense of profound at work here is definition 3(b) in the entry for profound as an adjective in Merriam-Webster's Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary (2003):

profound adj {ME, fr. AF parfunt, profond deep, fr. L profundus, fr. pro- before + fundus bottom ...} (14c) 1 a : having intellectual depth and insight b : difficult to fathom or understand 2 a : extending far below the surface b : coming from, reaching to, or situated at a depth : DEEP-SEATED <a profound sigh> 3 a : characterized by intensity of feeling or quality b : all-encompassing : COMPLETE <profound sleep> <profound deafness>

Because Merriam-Webster arranges its definitions chronologically, we can see that the "all-encompassing, complete" meaning arose out of the earlier "characterized by intensity of feeling or quality" meaning, which in turn arose after the "having intellectual depth and insight" and "extending far below the surface" meanings.

The shift from literally deep to figuratively deep to relatively inaccessible to fundamental to intense to complete isn't especially illogical at any point. The biggest jump might be from profound as remote to profound as intense, but even that is hardly astonishing. And certainly profound as intense is not far from profound as extreme or complete.

Given that the "all-encompassing, complete" meaning of profound was a relatively late arrival, it may be of interest to try to nail down an approximate date at which it emerged in English usage. The first Collegiate Dictionary to include "all-encompassing, complete" as a definition was the Seventh Collegiate (1963). The Sixth Collegiate (1949) had the other five definitions but not it:

profound adj. ... 1. Chiefly Poetic. Of very great depth; unfathomable. 2. Intellectually deep; thorough. 3. Coming from, reaching to, or situated at a depth; deep-seated. 4. Characterized by intensity, as of feeling or quality; as profound respect, fear, etc. 5. Of a bow, with body or head bent low in respect.

This is not to say that people weren't using profound to mean "complete" or "all-encompassing" until some time after 1949, but it does suggest either that the usage was not very widespread or that contemporaneous lexicographers did not recognize the usage as distinct from the word's use in one or more of the other definitions such as "deep-seated" or "intense." In my view, the latter explanation is the more likely one.

Early real-world use of 'profound' in the sense of 'extreme, utter, or complete'

One way to identify how long profound in the sense of "all-encompassing, complete" took to emerge from profound in the sense of "intense" is to look at instances of profound + [noun] in which the meaning "intensity of feeling or quality" doesn't seem very apt. To keep my research within reasonable bounds, I decided to focus on four word pairs that I think raise issues of inaptness under the pre-1963 array of recognized definitions: "profound deafness," "profound ignorance," "profound silence," and "profound sleep."

I will note some early instances of each of these phrases, starting with "profound deafness." The earliest match for this phrase is from Wyndham Beawes, A Civil, Commercial, Political, and Literary History of Spain and Portugal, volume 1 (1793):

Ambrosio de Morales, who was Witness to the Fact, speaking of the most eminent Persons of Spain, remarks two of the most singular; one in corporeal Forces, and the other in Strength of Genius: Of which the first is Diego Garcia de Paredes, that most robust Giant, whose invincible Puissance diamantine Walls could hardly resist; the second is the before mentioned Father Pedro Ponce, of whom he speaks in this manner.

"Another famous Spaniard, of a surprizing Genius and incredible Industry (if we had not seen it), is he who hath taught the Dumb to speak by a perfect Art of his own Invention; and that is Father Pedro Ponce, a Monk of the Order of San Benedict, who hath taught two Brothers and a Sister of the Constable's that were dumb to speak, and is now teaching a Son of the Justicia de Aragon. And to increase the Miracle, they remain with the profound Deafness which causes their Want of Speech; so that they are talked to by Signs, or they are wrote to, and they make an immediate verbal Answer; and they likewise write a Letter, or any thing else, in a well-concerted Manner."

The next-earliest Google Books match is from "Fifteenth Annual Report [of the Directors of the New-York Institution for the Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb]", in Documents of the Assembly of the State of New York, Fifty-Seventh Session, 1834, volume 3 (1834):

The Dr Itard, physician to the Royal Institution at Paris, in his labored work des maladies de l'oreille ey de l'aufition, has distinguished five degrees of infirmity of hearing:

1st. That in which articulate sounds are perceptible, when pronounced at an elevated tone of voice.

2nd. That in which analogous articulations are liable to be confounded.

3rd. In which articulation is lost, and intonation alone distinguishable.

4th. In which heavy peals, as of artillery or of thunder, only are perceptible , and the human voice no longer produces an impression upon the ear.

5th. Profound deafness.

Supposing the calamity, in every instance, congenital, the lower degrees of the above scale certainly hold out very encouraging promise of success to the teacher of articulation. But allowing that deafness has supervened at a later period, then instruction in articulation may be merely the revival of knowledge early acquired, but subsequently lost, from having fallen into disuse. Our country, at this moment, presents us with a remarkable phenomenon, in the existence of three mute writers of poetry, all profoundly deaf. It would be absurd to say that these could not acquire the power of articulation. Accent and syllabification are theirs already.

Here, the profound in "profound deafness" clearly means "extreme" or "utter" or "complete"—Merriam-Webster's definition 3(b) of profound from 130 years later. But if we tried to fit the into the Seventh Collegiate's 3(a) definition of profound, we might frame it not as "characterized by intensity of feeling or quality" but "characterized by intensity of condition." Again, that seems to me to be a rather modest step beyond the older definition.

The fact that the 1793 instance of "profound deafness" comes in a translation from a quotation originally written in Spanish and that the 1834 intance adopts the terminology (presumably translated from French) of the eminent Dr. Itard of Paris suggests that the term may have originated in Spanish or French and been imported into English as a transliteration of the Romance language wording.

The phrase "profound ignorance" is much older in English. The earliest Googl Books match is from Robert Persons, A Discvssion of the Answere of M. William Barlow, D. of Diuinity, to the Book intituled: 'The Iudgment of a Catholike Englishman liuing in Banishment for His Religion' &c. Concerning the Apology of the New Oath of Allegiance (1612):

An other profound ignorance of M. Barlow.

And heere now we see another profundity, not so much of Diuinity, as eyther of ignorance or impiety, ascribing only vnto Gods Prouidence things that in our eyes seeme good and profitable, wherein he impiously abridgeth Gods Prouidence, which is ouer all things without exception either dispositiue or permissiue, by ordayning, or by permitting: as he might haue seen in the Author by him alleadged, I mean S. Thomas in his question de Prouidentia, not that God is the Author of sinne, or of the obliquity thereof, as Caluin and his followers wickedly affirme, but that God doth vse euen naughty and sinfull actions oftentimes to his glory, and to the vniuersall good of his gouernment: ...

Even earlier is this instance (turned up in a search of Early English Books Online) from William Clowes, A Prooued Practise for All Young Chirurgians, Concerning Burnings with Gunpowder, and Woundes Made with Gunshot, Sword, Halbard, Pyke, Launce, or Such Other (1588):

Now agayne, he whose ignorance was shadowed with impudencie, and maliciously hidden vnder smooth and fayre promises, and glorious boastings, and by that meanes, at his owne pleasure, would lay heauie slaunderous burthens vpon other mens shoulders, is himselfe found out, and his owne doings hath bewrayed himselfe what he is. But it is a most true saying of a learned man: If our auncient fathers in times past should haue been abashed at the ingratitude and ill disposition of such hatefull abusers, wee should at this day haue been in profound ignorance, and little difference betweene vs and brute beastes.

In both of these instances, profound may mean something like "unfathomable" in the sense of "bottomless"—a depth that cannot be plumbed because it exceeds all human capacity to reach. But as far as I can tell, replacing profound with utter or complete would do no violence to the sense of either quotation. Indeed, if we take seriously the implicit literal or figurative deepness of the word profound, there is something vaguely oxymoronic about "profound ignorance"—although it is not so obviously a contradiction as "profound shallowness" would be. In this regard, I note a flurry of three unique occurrences of "profound shallowness" in Google Books search results for the period 1873–1876, starting with this instance from James Maccann, The Inter-relations of Prayer, Providence, and Science (1873):

Mr. [Francis] Galton is fair and modest in his proposals; being unconvinced, he thinks the method proposed might be useful in resolving his doubt; but Mr. [William] Knight [a Dundee clergyman] disdains such hesitation, and, from his own infallible knowledge, decides the question at once. He says, "We have, now-a-days, no instance of the suspension of physical law in answer to prayer." Of course he does not mean what he says, for the suspension of physical law is an absurdity ; he can only mean, no instance of a physical response to prayer. I would much like to know where he obtains his information. There may be thousands of instances occurring round him every day, for anything he can tell. What! is Mr. Knight to tell us when the Creator acts specifically on nature, and when He does not? Such a sentence as that I have quoted, indicates either the profound shallowness, or the intolerable arrogance of the man who penned it.

The term "profound silence" is also very old in English. Its earliest match in an EEBO search is from a 1553 translation of Virgil. From The xiii. Bukes of Eneados of the Famose Poete Virgill Translatet out of Latyne Verses into Scottish Metir, bi the Reuerend Father in God, Mayster Gawin Douglas Bishop of Dunkel [and] Unkil to the Erle of Angus (1553):

¶To Venus complante / Iuno fra end to end | Maid haisty ansuere / hyr actioun to defend | The quene Iuno, than but mare abade | Prikkit with felloun furie, thus furth braid | Quhy dois thou to me, sais sche sic offence | Constrenyng me brek clois, profound silence | And with thy wourdis, quhare aire, was troy | Prouokis to publis, and schew myne hid ennoye | Quhat maner man, or quhilk of goddis lat se | Tomoue batale, constrenit has Enee | Or to Ingire him self, to Latyn kyng | As mortale fo, wythin his propir ring | I gyf the case, to Italie socht he | Of the fatis, by the auctoryte | Prouokand tharto, be the wyld dotage | Of wod Cassandra, in hir fury rage

And from A Petition Apologeticall, Presented to the Kinges Most Excellent Maiesty, by the Lay Catholikes of England, in Iuly Last (1604):

Many are the reasons that haue caused vs to expect with perpetuall patience, and profound silence, your Maiesties most gratious resolution for some benigne remedy, and redresse of our most grieuous calamities and afflictions: as the confidence of a good cause: the testemony of an incorrupt cōscience: the memory of our constant, and continuall affection to the vndoubted right & Title, in remaynder of your renowned Catholike Mother, to the Crowne of England: the imputations, Crosses, & afflictions we suffred many yeares therefore: the publique and gratefull acknowledgmēt that your said glorious Mother made thereof, at the time of her Arraynement and execution, in the presence of the Lordes there assembled for her conuiction, vttering these wordes: Woe is me for the poore Catholikes, and the miseries I foresee they are like to endure for their irremoueable affection to me and mine; If I were as free as mine estate and innocency requireth, I would gladly redeeme their vexations with my dearest bloud.

Here and in other early instances, profound conveys a sense of seriousness and solemnity of demeanor appropriate to the situation. The silence is profound either in the sense that it reflects deep respect and deep thought or in the sense that it is figuratively impenetrable for other reasons.

The earliest EEBO match for "profound sleep" appears in a 1577 translation of Antonio de Guevara, A Chronicle, Conteyning the Liues of Tenne Emperours of Rome:

After that Martia, Letus, Electus, and Narcissus had slaine the Emperour Commodus, a greate parte of the night being passed, and all persons in ye palace being couched vnder the gouernement of profound sléepe, Martia and her companions tooke the carkase of Commodus, and wrapt it in an olde Seron, wherein the slaues did beare out the ordure of the stable: giuing them to vnderstande, that it was a certeine vessel, with a charge also to carrie it forth. After the bodie was remoued out of the courte, they laide it into a carre, and conueyed it into a certeine village named Aristro where Commodus did vse to bathe and solace: but on the next daye his death being published, the Romanes pursued, and although he were dead, they cutt off his head, and trailed his bodie throughout all the stréetes of Rome.

Here "profound sleep" seems interchangeable with "deep sleep," "sound sleep," or "heavy [as opposed to light] sleep."

But Philip Barrough, The Methode of Phisicke Conteyning the Causes, Signes, and Cures of Inward Diseases in Mans Body from the Head to the Foote (1583), in a chapter titled "Of Dead Sleep," seems to have a different notion of "profound sleep" than Guevara's translator did:

Coma in Greeke, sopor, or granis & profundus somnus in Latin. It may be called in Englishe dead sleepe. It is a disease wherin the sicke cannot awake, nor keep open his eyes, but doth keepe his eyes continually closse shut, and is in a sound sleepe. But ther be two kindes hereof, the one wherof we haue alredy spoken, and that is called simply Coma or sopor, or els Coma somnolentum. The other is called Vigilans sopor, and it is an euill wherin the sicke cannot hold open his eyes, though he be awake, but he winketh in hope to get sleepe, & yet is altogether awake. Therefor you must make a difference betwen these two kindes. The sleeping Coma (as Galen witnesseth) is somtime caused by ouermuch moistening of the braine, as it chaunceth to many dronken persons. Also in feuers only hot and moist vapours ascending from the inferiour partes, and moistening the braine doe cause this euill. Moreouer somtime only cold, occupying the fore part of the braine is cause of this euill. Sometime profound sleepe is caused of coldnes and moistnes ioyned together. The other euill called Vigilans sopor, or Coma (that is) the watching drowsynes, it is caused of fleume mixed with choler, and for the most parte it commeth for lack of strength, that they are not able to keep open ther eye liddes.

The discussion here is rather tortuous, but Barrough seems to be using "profound sleep" as a synonym for what he calls the disease of Coma somnolentum. In the bigger picture, however, I don't think that early usage of "profound sleep" was strongly tied to a specific medical condition—and certainly it isn't used that way today.


I am inclined to see real-world use of profound to mean 'extreme, utter, or complete' as going back several centuries. The fact that dictionaries (and in particular, Merriam-Webster dictionaries) didn't pick up on this thread of usage until relatively recently may be attributable to overlaps between that sense and certain other senses of profound that dictionaries recognized much earlier.

In the specific case of "profound deafness," the phrase may originally have been lifted as a transliterated word pair from French or Spanish sources in the late 1700s. But use of profound in other word pairs in contexts in which the sense of the modifier could easily (although not necessarily exclusively) be understood to mean "all-encompassing, complete" go back to the middle 1500s at least.

In retrospect, we can see the applicability of the more recently identified dictionary definition to these earlier instances, but it seems to me that we are dealing here with the mismatch between the artificial specificity of dictionary definitions and the inherently fuzziness and imprecision of real-world speech. Awareness of this mismatch is very helpful in any appraisal of how and when supposedly new meanings of old words emerge.

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