[ pas-iv-uh-gres-iv ]
/ ˈpæs ɪv əˈgrɛs ɪv /
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Definition of passive-aggressive

denoting or pertaining to a personality type or behavior marked by the expression of negative emotions in passive, indirect ways, as through manipulation or noncooperation: a passive-aggressive employee who often misses deadlines.
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Origin of passive-aggressive

First recorded in 1945–50

OTHER WORDS FROM passive-aggressive

pas·sive-ag·gres·sion, noun
Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2023


What does passive-aggressive mean?

Passive aggressive behavior is a way to express feelings of anger or annoyance, but in a non-forthcoming way. Instead of communicating openly, people who engage in this type of behavior share their negative feelings through actions.

Passive aggressive personality disorder was once also a psychiatric diagnosis.

Where does passive-aggressive come from?

The first time passive aggressive behavior was ever described was in 1945 in a Technical Bulletin issued by the US War Department. In this bulletin, Colonel William Menninger reported soldiers expressing aggressiveness via “passive measures,” which he said occurred through behaviors like pouting and stubbornness.

In the 1950s, the first edition of the Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM) was compiled, which included a definition for passive-aggressive personality, with the subheading passive-aggressive type that contained a description similar to Menninger’s. In 1966, passive-aggressive personality disorder was a common psychiatric diagnosis due to how easily it could apply to people. It continued to be used this way for a long time and often showed up in psychological scholarship.

By the 1980s, though perhaps earlier, passive aggressive began to refer to everyday behaviors. This was a shift from the previous usage, which was a way to pathologize people. It started being used by everyday people to accuse others of exhibiting these types of behaviors.

Passive-aggressive personality disorder was eventually cut from the DSM. It last appeared in the DSM-IV (1994), and it was no longer present in the DSM-V (2013).

Today, it only refers to the obnoxious behavior that people exhibit. Passive aggressive behaviors include sulking, shutting down communication, denying anger, procrastinating, doing things in an intentionally inefficient way, lying by omission, leaving someone out on purpose, delivering backhanded compliments, “forgetting” to do things, being sarcastic, and much more.

How is passive-aggressive used in real life?

Passive aggressive personality disorder is different from passive aggressive behavior because it presumably caused impairment for the person who was diagnosed.

The more common use of passive aggressive and its variants is as a behavior that annoys other people. Passive aggression is the act that people might carry out. Uses of the term passive aggressive can often include calling out someone’s behavior by declaring that they’re acting that way. It also appears on sites explaining how to deal with someone who’s being passive aggressive and uncommunicative.

More examples of passive-aggressive:

“For Taylor Swift to pretend that her entire music career is not a tool of passive aggression toward those who had wronged her is like me pretending I’m not carbon-based: too easy to disprove, laughable at its very suggestion.”
—Taffy Brodesser-Akner, “Revenge of the Nerds,” The Paris Review (June 22, 2015)


This content is not meant to be a formal definition of this term. Rather, it is an informal summary that seeks to provide supplemental information and context important to know or keep in mind about the term’s history, meaning, and usage.

How to use passive-aggressive in a sentence

British Dictionary definitions for passive-aggressive


psychoanal of or relating to a personality that harbours aggressive emotions while behaving in a calm or detached manner
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