unable to read and write: an illiterate group.
having or demonstrating very little or no education.
showing lack of culture, especially in language and literature.
displaying a marked lack of knowledge in a particular field: He is musically illiterate.


an illiterate person.

Origin of illiterate

First recorded in 1550–60, illiterate is from the Latin word illiterātus unlettered. See il-2, literate
Related formsil·lit·er·ate·ly, adverbil·lit·er·ate·ness, nounsem·i-il·lit·er·ate, adjectivesem·i-il·lit·er·ate·ly, adverbsem·i-il·lit·er·ate·ness, noun
Can be confusedillegible illiterate unreadableilliterate innumerate

Synonyms for illiterate

1. See ignorant. Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2019

Examples from the Web for illiterate

Contemporary Examples of illiterate

Historical Examples of illiterate

  • Look at the comparative returns of the illiterate electorate.

    Ireland as It Is

    Robert John Buckley (AKA R.J.B.)

  • The watchman of this secret chamber was an illiterate, deaf and dumb peasant.

    The Minister of Evil

    William Le Queux

  • In spite of his lack of University training he was no illiterate ignoramus.

  • He bridled up at the word "illiterate," and repudiated the vile insinuation.

    My New Curate

    P.A. Sheehan

  • We find Oxford so illiterate, that she could not even provide an University preacher!


    Andrew Lang

British Dictionary definitions for illiterate



unable to read and write
violating accepted standards in reading and writingan illiterate scrawl
uneducated, ignorant, or unculturedscientifically illiterate


an illiterate person
Derived Formsilliteracy or illiterateness, nounilliterately, adverb
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012

Word Origin and History for illiterate

early 15c., "uneducated, unable to read (originally of Latin)," from Latin illiteratus "unlearned, unlettered, ignorant; without culture, inelegant," from assimilated form of in- "not, opposite of" (see in- (1)) + literatus, literally "furnished with letters" (see literate). As a noun meaning "illiterate person" from 1620s. Hence, illiterati (1788).

Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2010 Douglas Harper