adjective, stern·er, stern·est.

firm, strict, or uncompromising: stern discipline.
hard, harsh, or severe: a stern reprimand.
rigorous or austere; of an unpleasantly serious character: stern times.
grim or forbidding in aspect: a stern face.

Origin of stern

before 1000; Middle English; Old English styrne
Related formsstern·ly, adverbstern·ness, noun

Synonyms for stern

1, 2. adamant, unrelenting, unsympathetic, cruel, unfeeling. Stern, severe, harsh agree in referring to methods, aspects, manners, or facial expressions. Stern implies uncompromising, inflexible firmness, and sometimes a hard, forbidding, or withdrawn aspect or nature: a stern parent. Severe implies strictness, lack of sympathy, and a tendency to impose a hard discipline on others: a severe judge. Harsh suggests a great severity and roughness, and cruel, unfeeling treatment of others: a harsh critic.

Antonyms for stern Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2019

Examples from the Web for sternness

Historical Examples of sternness

  • Just then, up came my father, with a sternness in his looks that made me tremble.

    Clarissa, Volume 1 (of 9)

    Samuel Richardson

  • "Get out of this," he said, with the sternness of wrath suppressed.

    Weighed and Wanting

    George MacDonald

  • The sternness of age and the austerity of censoriousness are now silent.


    William Godwin

  • His thin lips tightened; the sternness of his ace increased.

    The Snare

    Rafael Sabatini

  • Dr. Branner was as kind to his boys as he was stern when sternness was needed.

    Herbert Hoover

    Vernon Kellogg

British Dictionary definitions for sternness




showing uncompromising or inflexible resolve; firm, strict, or authoritarian
lacking leniency or clemency; harsh or severe
relentless; unyieldingthe stern demands of parenthood
having an austere or forbidding appearance or nature
Derived Formssternly, adverbsternness, noun

Word Origin for stern

Old English styrne; related to Old High German stornēn to alarm, Latin sternāx stubborn, Greek stereos hard




the rear or after part of a vessel, opposite the bow or stem
the rear part of any object
the tail of certain breeds of dog, such as the foxhound or beagle


relating to or located at the stern

Word Origin for stern

C13: from Old Norse stjōrn steering; see steer 1



Isaac. 1920–2001, US concert violinist, born in (what is now) Ukraine
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 sternness



Old English styrne "severe, strict," from Proto-Germanic *sternijaz (cf. Middle High German sterre, German starr "stiff," störrig "obstinate;" Gothic andstaurran "to be stiff;" Old Norse stara; Old English starian "to look or gaze upon"), from PIE root *ster-, *star- "be rigid" (see sterile).



c.1300, "hind part of a ship, steering gear of a ship," probably from Old Norse stjorn "a steering," related to styra "to guide" (see steer (v.)). Or the word may come from Old Frisian stiarne "rudder," which is also related to steer (v.).

Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2010 Douglas Harper

Idioms and Phrases with sternness


see from soup to nuts (stem to stern).

The American Heritage® Idioms Dictionary Copyright © 2002, 2001, 1995 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.