AskDefine | Define supercilious

Dictionary Definition

supercilious adj
1 having or showing arrogant superiority to and disdain of those one views as unworthy; "some economists are disdainful of their colleagues in other social disciplines"; "haughty aristocrats"; "his lordly manners were offensive"; "walked with a prideful swagger"; "very sniffy about breaches of etiquette"; "his mother eyed my clothes with a supercilious air"; "shaggy supercilious camels"; "a more swaggering mood than usual"- W.L.Shirer [syn: disdainful, haughty, lordly, prideful, sniffy, swaggering]
2 expressive of contempt; "curled his lip in a supercilious smile"; "spoke in a sneering jeering manner"; "makes many a sharp comparison but never a mean or snide one" [syn: sneering, snide]

User Contributed Dictionary



From supercilium.


  • a RP /ˌsuːpəˈsɪliəs/ or
  • a US /ˌsuːpɚˈsɪliəs/
  • Rhymes with: -ɪliəs
"Now he was a sturdy, straw haired man of thirty with a rather hard mouth and a supercilious manner." --F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, Chapter 1


  • Dutch: hooghartig, denigrerend
  • Italian: altezzoso

Extensive Definition

Hubris (sometimes spelled hybris; also called superciliousness; Greek: ὕβρις) is a term currently used to indicate overweening pride, self-confidence or arrogance, often resulting in fatal retribution. In Ancient Greece, "hubris" referred to actions which, intentionally or not, shamed and humiliated the victim, and frequently the perpetrator as well. It was most evident in the public and private actions of the powerful and rich. The word was also used to describe those who considered themselves more important than the gods themselves.
Hubris, though not specifically defined, was a legal term and was considered a crime in classical Athens. It was also considered the greatest sin of the ancient Greek world. That was so because it not only was proof of excessive pride, but also resulted in violent acts by or to those involved. The category of acts constituting hubris for the ancient Greeks apparently broadened from the original specific reference to mutilation of a corpse, or a humiliation of a defeated foe, or irreverent, "outrageous treatment", in general.
The meaning was eventually further generalized in its modern English usage to apply to any outrageous act or exhibition of pride or disregard for basic moral laws. Such an act may be referred to as an "act of hubris", or the person committing the act may be said to be hubristic. Ate, Greek for 'ruin, folly, delusion', is the action performed by the hero, usually because of his/her hubris, or great pride, that leads to his/her death or downfall.

Ancient Greece

Violations of the law against hubris included what might today be termed assault and battery; sexual crimes ranging from forcible rape of women or children to consensual but improper activities, in particular anal sex with a man or a boy; or the theft of public or sacred property.[1] Two well-known cases are found in the speeches of Demosthenes, a prominent statesman and orator in ancient Greece. These two examples occurred when first, Meidias punched Demosthenes in the face in the theater (Against Meidias), and second when (in Against Konon) a defendant allegedly assaulted a man and crowed over the victim.
There are many examples of hubris throughout famous literary works in world history. Perhaps one of the most vivid examples of hubris in literature is demonstrated by Achilles and his treatment of Hector's corpse in Homer's Iliad. Similarly, Creon commits hubris in refusing to bury Polynices in Sophocles' Antigone. Another example is in the tragedy Agamemnon, by Aeschylus. Agamemnon initially rejects the hubris of walking on the fine purple tapestry, an act which is suggested by Clytemnestra, in hopes of bringing his ruin. This act may be seen as a desecration of a divinely woven tapestry, as a general flouting of the strictures imposed by the gods, or simply as an act of extreme pride and lack of humility before the gods, tempting them to retribution. One other example is that of Oedipus. In Sophocles' Oedipus the King, while on the road to Thebes, Oedipus meets King Laius of Thebes who is unknown to him as his biological father. Oedipus kills King Laius in a dispute over which of them has the right of way, thereby fulfilling the prophecy of the oracle Loxias that Oedipus is destined to murder his own father.
Hubris against the gods is often attributed as a character flaw of the heroes in Greek tragedy, and the cause of the "nemesis", or destruction, which befalls these characters. However, this represents only a small proportion of occurrences of hubris in Greek literature, and for the most part hubris refers to infractions by mortals against other mortals. Therefore, it is now generally agreed that the Greeks did not generally think of hubris as a religious matter, still less that it was normally punished by the gods.[2]
Aristotle defined hubris as follows: to cause shame to the victim, not in order that anything may happen to you, nor because anything has happened to you, but merely for your own gratification. Hubris is not the requital of past injuries; this is revenge. As for the pleasure in hubris, its cause is this: men think that by ill-treating others they make their own superiority the greater.[3]
Crucial to this definition are the ancient Greek concepts of honor (timē) and shame. The concept of timē included not only the exaltation of the one receiving honor, but also the shaming of the one overcome by the act of hubris. This concept of honor is akin to a zero-sum game. Rush Rehm simplifies this definition to the contemporary concept of "insolence, contempt, and excessive violence".

Modern times

In its modern usage, hubris denotes overconfident pride and arrogance; it is often associated with a lack of knowledge combined with a lack of humility. An accusation of hubris often implies that suffering or punishment will follow, similar to the occasional pairing of hubris and Nemesis in the Greek world. The proverb "pride goes before a fall" is thought to sum up the modern definition of hubris.[5] In reference to someone being in Hubrity: Hubrity is a fulfillment of being hubristic or a continual behavior of being prideful. Victor in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein exudes hubris in order to become a great scientist, but is eventually regretting this previous desire. Faustus in Christopher Marlowe's play Dr. Faustus exudes hubris, all the way until his final minutes of life.
In his book The Hubris Syndrome: Bush, Blair and the Intoxication of Power the British politician David Owen argues that President George Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair developed a Hubristic Syndrome while in power. In particular their handling of the Iraq War showed their hubristic incompetence.

Popular culture

  • Odysseus' ten year journey home was the result of hubris: after blinding the Cyclops, he mockingly declared his name to the monster as he escaped. This allowed the Cyclops to call upon his father Poseidon for help and curse him.
  • In the beginning scenes of the Futurama episode "A Head In The Polls" characters Bender and Fry are seen watching the recurring show-within-a-show The Scary Door, a parody of The Twilight Zone. This episode specifically parodies The Twilight Zone episode "Time Enough at Last". In this comedic version, after breaking his only pair of glasses, a man realizes aloud "Wait, my eyes aren't that bad, I can still read the large print versions!" at which point his eyeballs fall out of their sockets. The man starts to panic, but still the optimist, the man states "Well, luckily I know how to read braille." Then his hands too fall off. Finally, silencing momentary screaming, his tongue and head follow suit. Bender watching, says to Fry that the man was "cursed by his own hubris".
  • In a memorable scene in the 2001 film A Beautiful Mind, John Forbes Nash loses to his arch rival Hansen in a Game of Go. Nash then states that him losing is impossible, that his playing was flawless. Hansen smugly replies, "The hubris of the defeated..."
  • In the film, 300 (adapted from the comic by Frank Miller) the narrator says “The God King (Xerxes) has betrayed a fatal flaw: hubris. Easy to taunt, easy to trick…the mad king throws the best he has at us. Xerxes has taken the bait.” Xerxes' sends his best soldiers to attack the Spartans, falling into a Spartan trap.
  • The Marvel Comics supervillain Doctor Doom wears a mask to hide his face due to hubris: his face was slightly scarred when he disregarded advice as to the safety of one of his experiments (which subsequently exploded). Later still he would apply his familiar metal faceplate to his face while it was still hot from the forge, hideously scarring him.
  • During the 2006 Winter Olympic Games, American snowboarder Lindsey Jacobellis had attained a seemingly insurmountable lead in the Snowboard Cross event final until she attempted a celebratory method grab as she neared completion of the course. The unnecessary move caused her to fall, allowing Tanja Frieden of Switzerland to pass her and win the gold medal. The media has cited this incident as an example of modern-day athletic hubris.

Alpha and Beta Pride

When trying to understand hubris, we must focus on the definition itself. It is a sense of self exaggerated pride. There are two types of pride, alpha pride and beta pride. Beta pride is the type of pride that contributes to hubris as a negative emotion. In order to understand the difference between good pride and hubris, we must differentiate between the two kinds.
Alpha Pride: (Pride within self)
described as a behavior that reflects less emotional expression. Alpha pride concerns feelings of inward gratification rather than the outward expressions that more concern that of beta pride.
Beta Pride: (Pride in behavior)
described as a behavior that contributes to hubris negatively. Beta pride in contrast to alpha pride is more of an emotional expression. Emotional expressions are often intended as communicative acts addressed to another person rather than direct reflections of an underlying mental state. Several theories are related to the relationship of beta pride and the unconscious feelings of detachment/unconcern.


Pride is a pleasant, sometimes exhilarating, emotion that results from a positive self-evaluation (Luis, 2002). The standard view of pride was that it results from satisfaction with meeting the personal goals set by oneself. Most research on pride attempts to distinguish the positive aspects of pride and the negative. Pride involves exhilarated pleasure and a feeling of accomplishment. Pride is related to more positive behaviors and outcomes in the area where the individual is proud (Weiner, 1985). Pride is generally associated with positive social behaviors such as helping others and outward promotion. According to Bagozzi et. al, pride can have the positive benefits of enhancing creativity, productivity, and altruism. Gestures that demonstrate pride can involve a lifting of the chin, smiles, or arms on hips to demonstrate victory.
Hubris, by contrast, involves an arrogant tone and satisfaction in oneself in general. Hubris seems to be associated with more intra-individual negative outcomes. Hubris is related to expressions of aggression and hostility (Tagney, 1999). Hubris is not necessarily associated with high self-esteem, as one might expect. But with highly fluctuating or variable self-esteem (Rhodwalt, et al.) Excessive feelings of hubris have a tendency of creating conflict and sometimes terminating close relationships. Hubris is considered one of the only emotions without some positive functions. When we are exposed to hubris we tend to avoid, shun, and reject the hubristic person.

See also



  • Cairns, Douglas L. "Hybris, Dishonour, and Thinking Big." Journal of Hellenic Studies 116 (1996) 1-32.
  • Hybris: a study in the values of honour and shame in Ancient Greece A book-length discussion of the meaning and implications of hybristic behavior in ancient Greece.
  • MacDowell, Douglas. "Hybris in Athens." Greece and Rome 23 (1976) 14-31.
  • Owen, David (2007) The Hubris Syndrome: Bush, Blair and the Intoxication of Power Politico's, Methuen Publishing Ltd.
supercilious in Czech: Hybris
supercilious in Danish: Hybris
supercilious in German: Hybris
supercilious in Spanish: Hibris
supercilious in French: Hybris
supercilious in Italian: Hýbris
supercilious in Hebrew: היבריס
supercilious in Hungarian: Hübrisz
supercilious in Dutch: Hybris
supercilious in Polish: Hybris
supercilious in Finnish: Hybris

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

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