1. (Of acts of violence) Not in accordance with any principle of justice; Deliberate, unprovoked, and unjustified
  2. Completely unrestrained, unchecked, and uncontrolled; (Of vegetation) luxuriantly dense and sprawling
  3. (Especially of women) Prone to frequently engage in sexual misconduct; sexually arousing, especially in an inappropriate way


The original meaning of wanton was basically "lacking in discipline." That broad meaning is now archaic, but most of wanton's present usages are closely related to that general idea. For example, wanton acts of violence are intentional attacks which are unprovoked and unjust. A wanton attack will often appear random because it cannot be predicted since it is not a reasonable response to anything. Wanton violence is violence which is not controlled by any system of justice. It just happens for no good reason. For example, if you walked up to your neighbor and politely complimented his begonias only to have him violently bludgeon you with his gardening trowel, that would be a wanton assault.

Other usages of wanton are more closely tied to the idea of lacking control. For example, wanton can describe someone (usually a woman) who behaves in a sexual promiscuous manner. The fact that this word is usually applied only to women is an unseemly relic of a fading cultural bias, but aside from that issue a wanton person could be said to lack proper control of their sexual drives. They engage in sexual misconduct willy-nilly because they lack the discipline to restrain themselves.

In a similar and yet very different way, wanton can also be applied to vegetation or imagination or spending habits. This sense of wanton is the most broad. It means basically entirely unchecked and uncontrolled. If you were to walk into a shopping mall and buy everything that caught your eye, you would be engaging in a wanton shopping spree. And, if your shopping habits prevented you from tending to your garden, then it might become a wanton mass of weeds. Vegetation is described as wanton when it has been allowed to grow unrestrained and thus become luxuriantly thick and sprawling. Wanton usually means freedom gone wild. If you lose control of yourself, you just might be on your way toward being wanton.

Example: The boy was grounded for two days because of his wanton persecution of the cat.

Example: The jealous husband accused his wife of wanton behavior at the slightest provocation.

Example: If we don't mow the lawn soon, it will become a wanton jungle!

Example: Although Melanie never did tell Brian that she loved him, her imagination of their future ran wanton.


Wanton derives from the Middle English wantowen, meaning "lacking in control." Wantowen is formed from the Old English prefix wan- which means "lacking" or "deficient" and the Middle English root towen (from the Old English togen) which is the past participle of the verb teon, meaning "to train, to discipline" or literally "to pull, to draw." The word was first applied especially to sexual indulgence in the 14th century. The sense of needless violence was acquired in the early 16th century.

Derivative Words

Wantonness: This noun form refers to the tendency to engage in unprovoked violence or heedless conduct or to the state of being obscene (especially in a sexual manner).

Example: The wantonness with which the dictator killed all those who opposed him soon put an end to all open resistance.

Wantonly: This adverb form describes an action which is performed in a reckless, flippantly cruel, overly luxurious, or sexually promiscuous manner.

Example: His desire for everyone to love him drove him to wantonly spend money on extravagant gifts and parties.

In Literature

From William Shakespeare's King Lear:

As flies to wanton boys are we to th' Gods;
They kill us for their sport.

In this oft quoted scene, Gloucester, after being blinded and cast out from his home, uses wanton to describe how the gods cruelly and carelessly afflict humans.


  • If you are wanton, then you take whatever you want.
  • Hungry Mr. Wang wantonly slurped the wonton soup.


The adjective wanton should not be confused with the noun wonton which refers to a dumpling like pastry in Chinese cuisine.


Morals, Behavior, License, Freedom, Sensuality

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