Tag Archives: obnoxious


Just how this word communicates its sense is likely to rely to some extent on the accent of the speaker. The rounder vowels of Received Pronunciation give a starchier, rigid, turned-up-nose approach, like the objection to the object; the flat, farther-front sounds of a Northeastern US accent (say, Buffalo) practically epitomize the offensive object itself, like a motor scooter by your bedroom window at 3 AM or a nose full of vinegar.

Speaking of noses, doesn’t that bnox seem like a box on the nose (or, worse, a stop in the Bronx)? And o, o, o, look at the visual rhythm of the word: three o‘s, each followed by two other letters; and the heart – with four letters before and four after – is that x, sign of proscription and, in cartoons, of queasiness or unconsciousness. This word is tightly constructed, but just to annoy you.

Like so many of our most expensive words (including many of those with x), this word comes from Latin: ob “towards, in front of, etc.” plus noxius “harmful” equals obnoxious “exposed to harm, liable to punishment.” Oh, wait, what? Yeah, originally to be obnoxious was to be exposed to harm. The sense shifted, though, and didn’t take all that long to do so, probably under the influence of the noxious part, and I’m sure the obstinate ob of obstacle, objection, and other things that get in your way played into that.

And what is most often obnoxious these days? Behaviour. And things that are obnoxious are often rude and/or loud. But, interestingly, they are often not actually harmful – just annoying. But deliberately so!


This word is prohibitive off the top: no, x. The ox could be an emoticon for a skull and crossbones. Given the sense of the word, the x in the heart is not catchy as in extra or maximum or functional as in fixing; the o and o stare back at you like a baleful glare – or the lights on a railroad crossing marked by the x (the i may be the post, the signal arm, or the person tied to the tracks). This word has unpleasant echoes, such as toxic and Nixon. It keeps bad company, too: common nouns it modifies include fumes, weeds, odors, chemicals, gases, emissions – is one of these words not like the others? Note how this word, which came to us from Latin noxa “harm”, has taken on an almost exclusively gaseous air (I cannot say whether the steam-hissing sound of the second syllable had any influence on this narrowing), with the exception of the more technical use with weeds. Add the obstacular ob to the front, on the other hand, and you get a word mainly applied to persons: obnoxious, which tends to modify behaviour and often to be preceded by rude and or loud and. And yet obnoxious has another sense, a bit older but now largely disused: “exposed or subject to something, especially to something harmful.” In this sense, a person who is obnoxious may be the victim – and quite innocent, perhaps ironically, given that the noc in innocent comes from the same root as noxa, the heart of obnoxious.