• Harsh, severe, or strongly reproachful in personality, manner, or tone

  • (Of a substance) Corrosive, stinging, or bitter

  • (Medical) Causing body tissue (such as skin) to pucker or tauten


  • A corrosive or bitter substance, especially one which causes contraction of body tissue


Everyone may be a critic, but some are definitely more so than others. You've met, and probably been badgered by, these practiced complainers and perpetual nags. For many, it's just a default mode of expression, with some even taking blatant pleasure in making sharp judgements and biting comments. They fill a valuable niche in society, serving as pedantic editors, acid-tongued lawyers, and instigators of flame-wars in comments sections everywhere. When you encounter one of these acid-tongued individuals, an equally sharp word like astringent is perfect to describe the personality you're dealing with.

In every way that it’s used, the adjective astringent is related to harshness and the biting sensation of acid. It's most commonly used figuratively to characterize people, acts, or behaviors as acerbic or rough. Astringent things are perceived as severe and often painful, making it especially apt when describing the effects of scathing criticism. An astringent person, for example, might have a reputation for being abrasive or intense. Often coming off as rude, acutely perceptive, or a mix between the two, this is someone you'd love to have on your mock trial team but would maybe hesitate to invite to a dinner party. The word can also imply a more temporary (as opposed to temperamental) kind of causticness; if you're having a terrible day, you might express your astringent mood by lashing out with some astringent comments.

More generally, though, astringent can describe anything as being physically acidic, stinging, or unpleasantly sharp. Have you ever put a drop (or several) of lemon juice directly on your tongue? It's not something we advise, but the sour, puckering, almost bitter sensation it leaves you with is an excellent illustration of the harshness that comes with being astringent. The word is actually a good choice to describe a wide range of corrosiveness, applicable to anything from a particularly strong dish soap to an acid so destructive that it eats through the test tube you pour it in. In the medical field, astringent is sometimes used specifically to characterize a substance as causing body tissue (usually skin) to tighten. A good example of this kind of astringent material is calamine lotion, which, when applied to a site of irritation, relieves itching and pain by causing the skin to contract. Any puckering, harsh, or acidic substance, medical or otherwise, can also be referred to simply as an astringent.

Example: The new author was shaken by the reviewer's astringent remarks.

Example: Struck with a bad case of Cooties, my only hope was a particularly astringent shampoo.

Example: The argument was fueled with tough, astringent barbs from both sides.

Example: When I visited the doctor about my sunburn, she suggested I try an astringent for now and avoid falling asleep next to the pool in the future.


Although today we often think of corrosive substances as dissolving or burning, astringent things can just as easily cause harm by causing the surfaces they come in contact with (usually flexible, water-containing materials, like skin) to contract suddenly and forcefully. This might explain, then, why astringent is a descendent of the Latin verb stringere, which means "to tauten" or "to draw, pull, or come together tightly (word-lovers might notice similarities in spelling between this word and two of its other English ancestors, strain and stringent). Stringere is itself a development of the Proto-Indo-European root streig-, meaning "to press" or "to rub or brush against."

By adding to stringere the prefix ad- (literally "to;" used here, with the "d" dropped, to indicate the action of an outside force), Latin speakers would form the verb astringere, meaning "to come or bring together tightly." The modern astringent is closely related to the present participle of this verb, astringentum (the English analog of which would be "tightening"). Astringent entered English as an adjective in the 1540s; its noun form would be first recorded in the early 17th century.

Derivative Words

Astringency/Astringence: Both astringency and astringence are nouns that can be used to describe the qualities of severity and corrosiveness, either in a substance (like an acid) or in a behavior or expression (like a sarcastic insult). Of the two, astringency is far more common.

Example: I washed my face, wincing at the astringency of the strong soap.

Example: The astringence of the principal's chastisement made the students hang their heads in shame.

Astringently: This adverb form of astringent characterizes an action, adjective, or other adverb as displaying (or a result of) sharpness, harshness, bitterness, or acidity (either literal or figurative).

Example: The young actress wasn't used to receiving any negative reviews, much less ones that were so astringently critical.

Example: "The lead was about as believable as an email from a Nigerian prince," one critic wrote about her astringently.

Similar Words

If you're always complaining about the rules of "the man," you may be familiar with the word stringent. Like astringent, stringent, which first cropped up in English during the early 17th century, has an ancestor in the Latin verb stringere, for "to tighten." In fact, as attested to by its similar spelling, stringent was originally used as a synonym for astringent. Nowadays, though, stringent is usually used to describe things like rules and conditions as strict, specific, and uncompromising.

Example: The senator proposed more stringent controls over lending practices of the banks.

In Literature

From Robert Louis Stevenson's Tales and Fantasies:

To and fro walked John before the door. The extreme sharpness of the air acted on his nerves like an astringent, and braced them swiftly. Presently, he not relaxing in his disordered walk, the images began to come clearer and stay longer in his fancy; and next the power of thought came back to him, and the horror and danger of his situation rooted him to the ground.

Here, Stevenson likens the air, which has a harsh, keen quality, to an astringent because of its stimulating effect on the character John. Hey, if you took an astringent to the face - not an acid, but maybe something like a particularly strong soap - you'd wake up pretty quickly, too.

From K.M. Weiland's Structuring Your Novel: Essential Keys for Writing an Outstanding Story:

Few of us would want to subsist on a steady diet of tragedy, but all of us are better for having cleansed our reading palate with the astringent bite of these unflinching portrayals of bittersweet truth.

In this passage, Weiland uses astringent to refer to the severe, purifying emotional hit that comes with reading a sad story.


  • Acidic Astringent isn't gentle


Burns, Acid, Sour, Bitter, Medicine, Sarcasm

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