1. Vulgar or lewd in a way that's meant to be amusing
  2. Related to or characterized by bawdiness or vulgar humor


  1. (antiquated) A lewd or ill-mannered person


Lexicographers may be of an academic persuasion, but even we have a couple of dirty, ribald jokes in our repertoire. There's this one about a barista, a nun, and a thesaurus in a hot tub…oh, man, you'd love it! We won't tell it here, though, because that kind of humor isn't exactly appropriate for a general audience. That's the thing about being ribald: if you were so inclined, you'd better only act that way in private, with people who you're confident won't take your punchlines the wrong way.

Ribald is most commonly seen as an adjective that means "vulgar" or "coarse." Oftentimes, the word refers to something that's crudely sexual, something that might get a laugh simply because it's so shocking or improper. Although ribald often indicates that the thing it's complementing is somehow unrefined, its effect can differ greatly based on how it's employed. When used intelligently, ribald humor can be both amusing and thought-provoking, à la Kurt Vonnegut; when lacking complexity, it's the kind of thing that makes eleven-year olds chortle (not that there's anything wrong with that!). In any case, something ribald is delivered with the confidence that, rude as it may be, it's just too funny to resist sharing!

Ribald can also be used as a noun to describe a person who is vulgar or who tells rude, bawdy jokes or stories. The noun version isn't nearly as common as the adjective these days, but, as long as you don't mind using vernacular that was popular a few centuries ago, it's still a perfectly correct choice to refer to someone like Geoffrey Chaucer or your favorite dirty comedian.

Example: The lexicographer's ribald descriptions resulted in several offended letters to his publisher.

Example: The ribald young girl made her older sisters laugh by telling them irreverent jokes.

Example: "When I find the ribald who did this…" Uncle Al muttered as he examined the lewd graffiti on his fence.


Fair warning: the backstory of ribald is a little coarse, although we'll try to PG-ify it as much as possible. The word's exact origins are actually unknown, but one of the most popular theories postulates that it comes from the Old High German word riban, which is often translated as "to be excessive or to feverishly pursue sexual contact." This connotation results from the use of riban's literal meaning, "to rub against," as a sexual euphemism (proof that people's minds have been in gutters for centuries). Riban would eventually evolve into the Old French terms ribaut and ribalt, both of which usually mean either "scoundrel or sexual rascal" or "crude and lascivious."

Likely inspired by the French, ribald first entered English with a companion term, ribaud, around the middle of the thirteenth century. Interestingly, this first usage was as a noun; the adjective version would not crop up until almost two hundred years later (during this time, ribaud fell out of use). The word's original English meaning - a "reprobate or lewd, sinful person" - was decidedly negative. Although many modern uses of ribald retain this connotation of undesirability, the term can now also characterize those who are appreciated and even commended for their bawdiness (even if it is a guilty pleasure).

Derivative Words

Ribaldly: This adverb describes an action that is characterized by coarseness and bawdiness.

Example: Uncle Al was growing tired of hearing the neighborhood kids ribaldly singing rude songs on their way home from school.

Ribaldry: This noun usually refers to the condition of vulgarity or sexual crudeness. It can also mean a piece of speech or writing that is vulgar or lewd.

Example: Uncle Al grumpily painted over the ribaldry on his fence.

Example: "I don't mind a joke," Uncle Al said to himself, "but ribaldry always gets my goat."

In Literature

From Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness:

He found Luciana sitting alone at a table in the Allied officers' night club, where the drunken Anzac major who had brought her there had been stupid enough to desert her for the ribald company of some singing comrades at the bar.
"All right, I'll dance with you," she said, before Yossarian could even speak. "But I won't let you sleep with me."

Ribald is used here to characterize the bawdy, crude humor of a group of soldiers having a good time. This ribaldry is evidently enough to lure an officer away from the fascinating Luciana, who soon turns her own ribald charms on Yossarian.


  • Ribald jokes are crude but rib-tickling


Coarseness, Sexual, Lewd, Humor

Bring out the linguist in you! What is your own interpretation of ribald. Did you use ribald in a game? Provide an example sentence or a literary quote.