• Tending to avoid work or strenuous activity; unmotivated and lazy; slow in movement or idle; seeking only ease and avoiding discomfort

  • Caused by or displaying laziness or a lack of ambition

  • (Medicine) Taking time to develop and usually causing little or no pain


It's a hot, hot, hot day in the middle of August. Everything seems weighed down, burdened by the thick heat. Leaves droop exhaustedly on branches; birds fly short distances before they have to stop and rest; even the buildings look like they're sagging into the street. And you? Oh, there's no hope for you - you're draped like a beach towel on your lawn chair, your arms dangling, too lethargic to even reach for the glass of lemonade next to you. The heat and the slow summer day have made you totally indolent - gripped with exhaustion and lacking any motivation to rouse yourself.

In most situations, the use of the word indolent indicates that there's laziness in the air. Indolent, which usually means "slow," "sloth-like," or "unapt to be active or engage in tasks," is often applied to people to describe languor. In this sense, indolent implies that its referent lacks ambition, focus, or work ethic, making it a good choice to describe anyone who's either slacking on a job they're supposed to be doing or who's just avoiding exertion in general. An indolent person, then, could be anyone from a student unmotivated to finish her homework to a couch potato who spends the entire weekend watching reruns of reality fishing shows.

You might expect a word so closely related to sluggishness and unproductivity to be strictly derogatory; however, indolent is a little more complex than that. Sure, in some cases it can imply that someone's slothfulness is a personality flaw, maybe suggesting that someone lacks the conviction needed to work hard or the maturity associated with self-motivation. But sometimes, an indolent temperament indicates that someone is trying to look cool, or maybe is a little depressed. Some very self-possessed people might be indolent because they feel that the results of engaging in traditional activities or lifestyles aren't worth the effort. Think of the writers of the so-called "Lost Generation" like Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein, who were indolent as a result of disillusionment and ennui, or of a teenage boy who pretends to be bored and unemotional when he's talking to a girl he thinks is cute. The word can even serve a strictly functional, neutral purpose by referring to sluggishness brought on by physical conditions, like that of someone rendered indolent by a debilitating cold or oppressive mid-August heat. Sometimes there simply is nothing negative about being indolent just for the sake of enjoyment - after all, we all deserve a weekend watching TV on the couch every once in a while.

A similar but slightly different usage of indolent can describe something as related to or characteristic of lethargy and laziness. In this way, the word can often be applied to actions or traits that reveal a person's listlessness: you might have an indolent tone of voice if you speak slowly and let your words trail off, and you could show off your comfortable, indolent disposition with an indolent yawn. A little less commonly, the term can describe something that actually causes laziness, as in the indolent swing of a hypnotist's pendulum.

Finally, in medicine, a disease or an entity like a tumor, ulcer, or growth can be considered indolent if it doesn't cause its host any pain or discomfort. An indolent medical condition is also often understood to progress or heal very slowly. Crucially, this doesn't imply anything about the seriousness or danger of the condition - without more information, an indolent growth might be anything from benign to cancerous.

Example: The manager of the local burger joint frequently grew frustrated with his indolent fry-cooks.

Example: Glancing for a moment at her unmown lawn, Mia let out an indolent sigh before going back to her Sudoku.

Example: Every morning, I find myself trapped in bed by my sheets' indolent softness.

Example: The doctor made a name for himself studying indolent ulcers.


It's obvious that someone who's lazy is trying to avoid exertion, but what about pain or discomfort? It seems to stand to reason, as those things often accompany the travails of hard work. This association helps to explain the development of indolent, one of whose earliest ancestors was probably the Latin indolentem, which means "stolid" or "not feeling pain." Indolentem is a combination of the prefix in-, meaning "not" or "without," and a form of the verb dolere, which means "to feel pain or anguish; to experience suffering."

The first records of indolent are from the 1660s, when the word meant "without discomfort" or "painless," a usage that today has become obsolete outside of the medical community. The current prevailing usage of the word to mean "lazy" or "avoiding work" wouldn't arise until the beginning of the next century.

Derivative Words

Indolently: This adverb usually describes an action that is done lazily, without much energy or motivation. It can also characterize an adjective as related to or the result of lethargy.

Example: I poked my dog to try to make him move off of my bed, but he just rolled over indolently.

Example: The sleepy dog gazed at me with his tongue out, indolently happy.

Indolence: Indolence is a noun that refers to the state or quality of languidness or slothfulness, or to the pursuit of comfort and ease.

Example: Spread across a towel and asleep with a magazine over his face, the beachgoer was the epitome of indolence.

Example: As the young recruit soon learned, there is no place for indolence in the military.

Similar Words

It's fascinating how, by changing just a letter or two, a word can be transformed into a completely different term. Indolent, for example, is sometimes confused with two very similar sounding but differently used words, insolent and redolent.

Being insolent puts you just as much at risk for a reprimand as being indolent, but not because you've been sluggish or haven't acted. Instead, insolent means you may have taken an action too far, to the point of rudeness or contempt. To be insolent is to show an unabashed lack of respect; it's often applied to young people and subordinates who frequently speak or act out of turn.

Redolent, on the other hand, is often a far more positive word than either of its two lookalikes. The word means "to smell strongly;" it is used especially to refer to pleasant, heady aromas, like the scents you might get from a teashop or from sticking your nose directly into a rose. Redolent can also be used a little more figuratively to describe something as engendering particular sensations or thoughts - as in, "this lexicon is redolent of knowledge!"

Example: The bandleader was growing tired of the young drummer's insolent back-talk.

Example: For Sandra, the redolent Spring air brought a constant battle with allergies.

In Literature

From Jane Austen's Mansfield Park:

"And though Dr. Grant is most kind and obliging to me, and though he is really a gentleman, and, I dare say, a good scholar and clever, and often preaches good sermons, and is very respectable, I see him to be an indolent, selfish bon vivant, who must have his palate consulted in everything; who will not stir a finger for the convenience of any one; and who, moreover, if the cook makes a blunder, is out of humour with his excellent wife."

Here, the character Mary Crawford critiques one of the parsons of Mansfield, calling him, among other things, indolent, or "lazy." Ironically, while Dr. Grant may be rude and disinclined to hard work, Ms. Crawford is hardly a paragon of virtue herself.

From Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye:

We mistook violence for passion, indolence for leisure, and thought recklessness was freedom.

Morrison's words highlight the difference between leisure - enjoying relaxation and an easy-pace - with indolence, or the rejection of exertion when effort is needed.


  • Indolent is content to do nothing


Medicine, Pain, Grief, Work

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