• Rigid, harsh, or coldly disciplined in temperament or bearing

  • Extremely plain or simple in appearance

  • Denying leisure or indulgence; Spartan


Have you ever been in a situation where you constantly had to be completely, rigidly serious? Most of the circumstances we find ourselves in have at least occasional room for levity, but there are invariably times when the setting calls for us to be austere. In these cases, we may have to exercise strict discipline or act sternly toward other people. As unpleasant as these times can be, take them for the learning opportunities that they are — you may find that you benefit from them when you're back in more casual settings.

Austere characterizes someone as demanding, strict, or unforgiving. Austere people have zero time for pleasantries, fun, or other shenanigans. Instead, they are completely committed to their duties or roles, often at the expense of any kind of pleasure. Someone who is austere is incredibly disciplined, and they may demand the same level of focus and self-denial from others. For instance, an austere manager might run an office that forbids employee birthday parties, chitchat at the water cooler, and anything else not absolutely necessary for getting work done. You could also call this no-fun office “an austere work environment”. In this example, the manager and office are both austere because they involve strict, grim adherence to the responsibilities of work.

To be austere is to be totally serious, with no tolerance for wasting time or energy. Because of this rigidity, the word often implies that the person it describes is aloof, harsh, or even grim. The austere boss might seem stern or cold to her employees and have little rapport with them. Austere people and things generally lack human warmth. They are devoted to their duties, and as a result, they may consider self-expression and emotional connections frivolous distractions.

The word austere can also signify that something or someone is plain, modest, or extremely basic. An austere home décor would be a spartan one, lacking in art and ornamentation and sticking to the bare necessities in furniture. Likewise, an austere person probably lives in such an abode and dresses very simply. Because flashy clothes, fashionable labels, and beautiful furniture are often costly, an austere appearance may be the result of frugality. Someone trying to save money might end up with an austere home by cutting way down on living expenses and keeping few possessions.

While frugality is almost always economic in nature, some people choose austere self-denial for reasons other than trying to save money. You can use austere to characterize someone who deliberately avoids comfort and pleasure for any reason. People who are austere in this sense may live ascetically for moral, religious, or health reasons. For instance, a devout monk might lead an austere life that involves fasting, lots of meditation, and living in a tiny wooden hut with no electricity, all for the sake of spiritual enlightenment. Someone who is austere like this would see luxuries as obstacles in life and so single-mindedly avoid them. In many such cases, the austere life is a manifestation of an internal austere attitude or mind-set.

Example: The austere dean could be aloof, but he kept the university at peak academic excellence.

Example: Her austere personal budget allowed her to save money in case of an emergency.

Example: His austere desk had nothing but a computer, a notebook, and a lamp on it.

Example: His living room’s minimalism highlighted his austere attitude.


The word austere originally comes from the Proto-Indo-European root *saus-, which means “dry” or “parched.” That root, *saus-, is the source of the Greek adjective austeros, meaning “sour,” “harsh,” or, more specifically, “drying the tongue.” Figuratively, austeros can also mean "strict" or "severe." This term led to the development of the Latin adjective austerus, which means “bitter,” "harsh," or “sharp,” and the Old French austere, meaning “rigid” or “severe.” Austere first emerged in English in the 1300s with the same meaning as its Old French predecessor. The word took on the sense of “plain” or “spartan” in the late-1500s, and it had acquired the meaning of “very serious” or “aloof” by the middle of the following century.

Derivative Words

Austerely: This adverb form of austere can characterize an action or adjective as related to severity, strictness, or rigid self-denial.

Example: The family planned their vacation austerely, not wanting to waste time or exceed their tight budget.

Example: This convent always seems austerely clean.

Austereness: Austereness is a noun that refers to strictness, plainness, or abstinence.

Example: The boss’s austereness was so infamous that none of her employees ever dared ask her for project extensions.

Example: The austereness of his attire signaled his modesty.

Austerity: Like austereness, the noun austerity can mean severity, self-discipline, or starkness. Austerity is much more common than austereness. Additionally, austerity can describe the practice of budgeting frugally, particularly by a governmental body.

Example: The students found that behind their professor’s austerity in grading was a warm and abiding desire to instill a good work ethic.

Example: With tax revenue trickling in, the legislature opted for austerity measures until they could devise a new influx of funding.

In Literature

From Bertrand Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy:

Mathematics, rightly viewed, possesses not only truth, but supreme beauty - a beauty cold and austere, like that of sculpture, without appeal to any part of our weaker nature, without the gorgeous trappings of painting or music, yet sublimely pure, and capable of a stern perfection such as only the greatest art can show.

Russell here muses on the sublime beauty he sees embodied in mathematics. Rather than offering the rich, evocative aesthetics of visual or performing arts, mathematics maintains an austere beauty in its straightforward representation of pure logic and the forces of the universe.


Austerity can sometimes refer to economic policies created by governments to reduce debts, or balance the budget. Austerity policies can include decreasing spending on social services and increasing revenues by raising taxes. Austerity is often unpopular, as not only can government services be drastically scaled back, but the cuts may be felt unevenly across different socio-economic demographics.


  • If your budget’s austere, you ought to steer clear of luxuries.


Finance, Economics, Budgets, Government, Discipline, Lifestyle, Luxury, Strict

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