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What does "Obsequious" Mean?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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The word “obsequious” is used to describe someone who is almost pathetically eager to follow, obey, and serve. It is often used in a pejorative way, suggesting that someone has rather slavish tendencies which are obnoxious and sometimes embarrassing. Most people make an effort to avoid being obsequious, finding ways to express compliance which are more subtle and less intense than obsequiousness, although in some cultures this servile attitude is considered socially acceptable.

This word is derived from the Latin ob, which means “to,” and sequi, “follow,” so the word literally means “to follow.” The term appears to have entered English around the 1300s, and it at first referred to dutiful service. The early incarnation of the word was typically used in a complimentary way, praising people who were prompt to serve. By the 1500s, however, the word had acquired its modern sense of being fawning and sycophantic, and it has decidedly negative connotations today.

Many people associate excessive flattering, fawning, and bootlicking with modern day obsequiousness. The implication is that someone is abasing him or herself to please someone else, and in many cultures people who tolerate obsequious behavior are also viewed negatively. Rather than simply being polite, submissive, and happy to serve, someone who is obsequious crosses the line, demonstrating behavior which can be distasteful in its intensity.

In some professions, obsequious behavior can be very common. Some waiters, for example, are accused of being obsequious, and striking a balance between being obsequious and simply providing attentive service can be challenging for many people in the service industry. For workers in the service industry, part of the problem is that different people have different personal thresholds for obsequiousness; for example, one person might be annoyed by a waiter who constantly checks on drinks for the table, while someone else would appreciate this gesture.

If someone suggests that your behavior is obsequious, you might want to examine the way you conduct yourself, especially around superiors such as bosses. If you're confused about why the label has been applied to you, you may want to ask for specific examples, especially if you are living or working in an unfamiliar culture, as different societies have their own versions of obsequiousness and their own levels of tolerance for it.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Language & Humanities researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By marcxenos — On May 16, 2011

I think the word to describe Asian culture is deference. While the subjective range of deference and obsequiousness may cause slight overlap of perception, there is still a difference between slavish devotion and simple avoidance of conflict.

By anon164636 — On Apr 01, 2011

You people clearly don't understand a thing about Confucian cultures. do some research.

By anon164083 — On Mar 30, 2011

Interesting, that use of the term "Confucian culture". I don't believe that it has anything to do with Confucianism at all, but with the much more secular political setup in that area of the world, which also happens to harbor most of the Confucian population.

I don't see a difference between the medieval master/serf society and what I see in most of Eastern Asia. You may put on the rose colored glasses and see dedication to family and community in unifies cooperation. I see people who are exploited and kept ignorant of the outside world or anything that does not serve the government.

The people are dedicated to their hovels because that is the only world they have, and woe betide those who get any ideas beyond what is allowed. Witness the Death March, Tiananmen Square and the more recent smackdown on the Buddhists.

The semantic shift from a complimentary connotation to negative is mildly interesting, but no more so than the shift in the meaning of the word "gay" over the past 40 years or so. --Paul P.

By JuliaNYC — On Dec 05, 2010

Qohe1et makes an interesting point about the concept being acceptable or encouraged still in Confucian cultures as opposed to Western individualist cultures.

I would comment that there is a big difference in the function and experience of this behavior in the old slave/master style societies and the confucian societies which focus more on the virtues of family/community unified cooperation.

Although the individual is subjugated to the whole it is not demeaning but rewarding because of the overall benefit to the community of obsequious giving and self sacrifice comes back to the individual who is deeply integrated in this whole.

In Western individual values, the general sense of community and family sacrifice for the whole is mostly lost so being obsequious is mostly an individual loss or gain.

With all this said, as a *concept,* it's an interesting comparison, but are asian societies even using this word (if they speak english)? They may have a word with positive connotations in their own languages that they would not translate as obsequious and would not feel is applicable to hear this label applied to their behavior - so there isn't really a semantic shift in this word regarding asian cultures.

By Armas1313 — On Nov 18, 2010

@Qohe1et - Interesting post, although I think there is even more to the story. The term "obsequious" can also be used as a manipulative accusation to followers of ones opponents, thus causing them to question their loyalties to a given person and thereby "manipulating" them yourself.

By Qohe1et — On Nov 18, 2010

It is interesting to note the semantic shift in this term. Whereas in medieval feudal and monarchy-based societies this Latin-based term would be viewed as a positive trait in a layman, it has come to have negative connotations as our culture evolved through the Enlightenment and the American Revolution.

Today, our sense of individual rights and calling is much higher than it once was, and knowledge has become the key to power. Serving and following others is seen as a countercultural weakness. It is important to recognize that Eastern cultures have seen no such shift in the understanding of self, and therefore a Chinese waiter would be confused if an American were to scold them for "obsequious" behavior. This kind of service is necessary and commonplace in Confucian cultures.

By anon88008 — On Jun 02, 2010

Nicely informative.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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