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(pronounced ungk-choo-us; “oo” pronounced as in “boot” and not as in “book”)  adjective


1. characterized by excessive and false earnestness or sincerity in speech, behavior, etc.; full of affected or exaggerated fervor in manner or language; excessively smooth or ingratiating. 2. fatty or oily; soapy; like oil or grease to the touch or feel (as of certain minerals); similar to an ointment or unguent. 3. plastic; capable of being molded.

Main Example

  • Understandably, Rex Tillerson’s farewell speech at the State Department shortly after he learned of his firing through a presidential tweet was emotional. Among other things, he thanked all the employees for their service and said that his last fourteen months had been a rare privilege to serve the American people. But there was no mention of Donald J. Trump--a far cry from the famous cabinet meeting in the White House last June when all the department heads, including Tillerson, went around the room uttering glowing words of praise for the president. Recall that the first prize for unctuousness at that meeting went to then-Chief of Staff Reince Priebus who reportedly said: “On behalf of the entire senior staff around you, Mr. President, we thank you for the opportunity and the blessing you’ve given us to serve your agenda....”

Workplace Examples

  • Did you notice that during his introduction of Clara at yesterday’s event, the vice president just went on and on? His praise for her bordered on the unctuous. Could it be that Clara has told him of her desire to leave our department and he is trying to get her to change her mind?
  • It’s been a while since I received one of those unctuously written so-called “Nigerian emails”--you know, the ones in which the sender uses all sorts of flattering and oily language to get you to part with your bank account details and other personal information in exchange for what they promise will be a hefty share of the “wealth” that he or she is trying to smuggle out of their African nation, or something like that.

Other Examples

  • the head of a large corporate IT department telling a friend: “As you know, several of my employees hail from Asia and, yes, a few of them have invited me to their homes. Well, over the years, I’ve gathered that Asians are exceedingly warm to visitors--almost to a fault--and will insist that you partake of some food or beverage even if you are there for only a few minutes. And mind you, this solicitousness is all very genuine and sincere--it’s ingrained in their culture. Well, I bet many Americans who are of European stock--people like you and me--mistake this effusive welcome, this unrestrained concern for your comfort etc. to be insincere and unctuous which, of course, is not the case at all.”
  • an unctuous mineral such as talc; unctuous meat; a political candidate’s speech that is disingenuous and unctuous
  • a hotel guest irritated by the bellman’s unctuous manner
  • during the heyday of the Ottoman Empire, its rulers constantly receiving jaw dropping gifts from unctuous nations in the neighborhood
  • an unctuous mayonnaise; an unctuous dressing for salad; an unctuous poultice for an insect bite
  • The next time you see a video clip of a head of state from a developing nation being welcomed somewhere in their land, take a close look at that person’s immediate surroundings. Chances are that a majority of the people flanking that leader are not designated security personnel but fawning officials bowing deeply to open doors and clear the way, bending forwards and backwards in sync with the potentate’s expressions and movements, and overeager to satisfy his or her slightest need. Unctuousness is writ large on such officials’ faces and in their bearing.

© 2018 V.J. Singal
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