Defining Sexy: Different Meanings Revealed

, Staff Writer
Updated August 13, 2021
marilyn monroe posing for camera smiling sexy
    Marilyn Monroe circa 1952 used under Getty editorial license
    Michael Ochs Archives / Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images
    Used under Getty Images editorial license

Wondering what the word sexy really means? Discover the history of this fascinating word, along with its meanings, how what's considered sexy can change, and other ways to say sexy. Explore everything you need to know to make wise decisions about when the term sexy is the best way to convey your intended meaning.

What Does Sexy Mean?

The word sexy (sɛksi) is an adjective with a few different meanings. It is the adjective form of the word sex, which can be used as a noun or a verb.

  • The word sexy can mean that people, objects or situations are perceived as sexually appealing, desirable or arousing. (That actor is so sexy.)
  • When used to describe a book or movie, the word sexy means that the story is sexually stimulating in some way. (This sexy novel has some steamy love scenes.)
  • The term sexy can also mean that an item or object is considered to be particularly appealing or attractive. (That sure is a sexy motorcycle.)

When used to describe a person or characteristics of a person's appearance, the word sexy is not used to describe general attractiveness or appeal. Other words, such as beautiful, pretty, cute or attractive would be used for that. Instead, using the word sexy to refer to a person is saying that the speaker finds the individual he or she is describing to be sexually appealing in some way.

Word Origin of Sexy

Did you know sexy is a 20th-century creation? In order to understand the origin of the word sexy, you first need to be aware of where the word sex came from, since sexy is the adjective form of that term. See how usage of the word sex has evolved over time, leading up to the word sexy becoming a frequently used term.

  • There are records of the Latin word sexus being used as early as the 14th Century to describe the noun form of sex, which is the state of being female or male.
  • The Latin term secus has the same meaning. Some believed that it was used even earlier than sexus, but it doesn't appear in the oldest known writings.
  • It is believed that sexus and secus may be related to secāre, which means "to sever." Since sex is a way that people are divided into categories, this makes sense.
  • The first known recorded usage of the word sex occurred in the year 1520. At this point, the term is believed to have been used only (or primarily) as a noun.
  • By 1884, the word sex was used as a verb in the context of identifying sex (noun). For example, a doctor would "sex" a baby to determine if it was male or female.
  • In 1894, the word "sexful" entered the vernacular. It referred to being consumed by sex. It also indicated sexual appeal, so it's a likely step toward the word sexy.
  • The phrase "sex object" is believed to have been used as early as 1901. By that time, usage had broadened to include sexual desire based on attractiveness.
  • The phrase "sex appeal" may have been used being used as early as 1904. This seems to be another precursor to what would later become the word sexy.
  • The word sex was formally being used in the context of sexual intercourse by 1906. It was probably used that way much earlier (based on the "sexful" usage).
  • The word sexy came about in the early 20th Century. It can be traced back to 1905. Its usage increased in books significantly during the 1920s.

How the Word Sexy Is Used

The word sexy may not have appeared in books prior to the 1920s, but usage of the term in literature has increased steadily since then. Maybe art does imitate life, as the word quickly became part of everyday language after it entered the mainstream.

  • Why did sexy become popularized in the 1920s? In 1921, when Rudolph Valentino became a big-screen superstar, he was described as sexy. There was no other way to describe his unique sensual magnetism. Some even say that he invented sex appeal.
  • From there, the word caught on and became a common English word used to describe people with the type of attractiveness associated with extremely high sexual appeal. It started to be used in writing and conversation with more and more frequency, as well as to describe movie stars and starlets.
  • Marilyn Monroe had a very sexy public persona as a 1950s movie star sex symbol. Her image was super-sexy, on and off the screen. Her multiple marriages to James Dougherty, Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller, as well as her scandalous affair with President John F. Kennedy, contributed to that image.
  • During Marilyn Monroe's time, her hourglass figure, blonde hair and breathy voice made her an archetype of a sexy woman. During the 1960s and 1970s, super-thin became the standard for sexy. Then, in the 80s, being fit and toned came to epitomize a sexy appearance. Today, we are moving toward more body types being seen as sexy.
  • During the 1960s and 1970s, wearing what was considered sexy apparel, such as miniskirts in the 60s and halter tops in the 70s, became mainstream. This further increased the usage of the word sexy and added to the contexts in which the word could be used.
  • The term sexy also came to be used to refer to objects with a sensual appeal, such as muscle cars and sports cars. In 2020, Wheels magazine published a list of the 50 sexiest cars of all time.
  • In 1985, People brought further attention to the word sexy with its first annual Sexiest Man Alive issue. Mel Gibson was the first to win the title, followed by a diverse group of celebrities. The list includes Blake Shelton, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, George Clooney, Idris Elba, John Legend, and many others.
  • The word sexy is sometimes used simply to get attention, as evidenced by this 2012 article called Data Scientists: The Definition of Sexy. In the very first sentence, the author admits to only using the word sexy in the title to grab attention in internet search results.
  • The word sexy continues to be used to describe movie stars, but also everyday people, characteristics and situations. Maybe that's why sexy was the most searched definition on in 2020.
woman in bikini on beach and man surfing
    how to use sexy beach scene example
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    Used under Getty Images license

Other Forms of the Word Sexy

Terminology related to sexy continued to evolve over time. Today, there are several variations of the word. Explore other forms of the word sexy, along with their parts of speech and meaning.

  • sexier (adjective) - a comparative term; indicates something or someone is more sexy than another (That dress is sexier than the one you wore last week.)
  • sexiest (adjective) - a comparative term; conveys that hat someone or something is the most sexy of a group (He is the sexiest guy at this party.)
  • sexily (adverb) - behaving in a sexual manner (She sexily placed her hand on his back.)
  • sexiness (noun) - the state of being sexy (His sexiness is hard to describe.)

Synonyms for Sexy

There are quite a few synonyms for sexy. The YourDictionary thesaurus lists over 40 synonyms for sexy, as well as some related words and even a few antonyms.

  • bodacious
  • delectable
  • desirable
  • luscious
  • risqué
  • seductive
  • succulent
  • toothsome

Sexy Synonyms and Slang

Sexy isn't the only descriptive term that conveys the same meaning. There are a number of synonyms and even slang terms that have essentially the same meaning as sexy, or that are very close in how they are intended and/or perceived.

  • dishy - super-sexy; looks good enough to eat (She looks super-dishy in that outfit.)
  • foxy - sexy in a sophisticated way (What a foxy lady!)
  • hot - include "looking hot" as a way this might be used (He is so hot!)
  • hottie with a body - an attractive person with a great figure (Look at that hottie with a body.)
  • secys - super-sexy; the meaning is like saying that someone is sexy to an extreme degree (There's sexy, and then there is next-level secys.)
  • sex on legs - a person who is perceived as being very sexually desirable (He looks like sex on legs to me.)
  • sex you up - do something to make the person more sexy (You look too sweet. Let's sex you up with a sleek haircut and a revealing outfit.)
  • sexc - a play on words, based on the fact that the "y" at the end of sexy sounds like the letter "c" (Seriously, she is sexc!)
  • smexy - an informal combination of smart and sexy (Intelligence matters to me. My ideal date needs to be smexy.)
  • swexy - another informal combination that blends sweet and sexy (I find sensitivity to be appealing, so I'm looking for a swexy man.)
  • tasty - very sexy and appealing; looks good enough to eat (You look tasty tonight.)
  • turns me on -something that causes someone to be sexually aroused (When you look at me like that, it really turns me on.)
word smexy definition example
    word smexy definition example
    Created by Lindy Gaskill for YourDictionary
    Copyright YourDictionary, Owned by YourDictionary

Sexy vs. Sexiness

The words sexy and sexiness are very closely related. The biggest difference lies in the fact that sexy is an adjective and sexiness is a noun. Sexy is used to describe a noun, while sexiness actually is a noun. If a person perceives thick, curly hair as sexy, then that same person would see such hair as an example of sexiness in a person.

  • Her thick, lush curls are so sexy.
  • To me, sexiness starts with thick curly hair.

Sexiness might not be just one thing. It could be the unique combination of characteristics that define who an individual is as a person. For example, sexiness could involve the combination of lush, curly hair and a beguiling smile.

word sexiness definition example
    word sexiness definition example
    Created by Lindy Gaskill for YourDictionary
    Copyright YourDictionary, Owned by YourDictionary

What Is Sexiness in a Man?

Not everyone sees the same characteristics or traits as sexy, in either a man or a woman. Depending on perception, any of the following traits could represent sexiness in a man.

  • attentive
  • emotional
  • empathetic
  • good listener
  • musical
  • muscular
  • nurturing
  • sensitive
  • strong
  • take-charge attitude

What Is Sexiness in a Woman?

When it comes to describing sexiness in a woman, it's important to remember that not everyone finds the same characteristics to be sexy. The things listed below are often perceived as sexiness.

  • affectionate
  • ambitious
  • athletic
  • confident
  • curvy
  • demure
  • direct
  • independent
  • sweet
  • tender

Terms That Are Not Quite Sexy

There are a few words that are similar to sexy, but not quite the same. Learn to differentiate sexy from related words that aren't quite synonyms.

  • sexy vs. beautiful - The word beautiful means that someone is very attractive, but it doesn't imply sexual attraction or sensuality. It would be okay to describe a baby as beautiful, but you wouldn't use the word sexy to describe a baby.
  • sexy vs. pretty - The word pretty means that someone is very attractive. It is usually (but not always) reserved for women. Pretty is more than attractive, but not quite beautiful. It does not connote desirability or sexual attraction.
  • sexy vs. attractive - Attractive refers to visual appeal. Depending on the context, it can be closely related to sexy. For example, if you find someone to be attractive, that could mean that you feel sexual attraction toward that individual. It doesn't always mean that, though. It could just mean that you think they are good-looking.
  • sexy vs. skanky - There is a fine line between sexy and skanky. Sexy has a positive connotation while skanky has a negative one. Skanky is a synonym for trashy.
  • sexy vs. slutty - There can also be a fine line between sexy and slutty. Someone that is desirable might be described as sexy, whereas someone who is "easy" (in the context of being sexually promiscuous) might be viewed as slutty rather than sexy.

Context Is Key When Using Sexy

The word sexy should only be used in contexts where it is appropriate. Consider a few examples of situations in which sexy can be appropriate, as well as circumstances where the term should never be used.

When Sexy Is Okay to Say

People often use the word sexy with their romantic partners or people they are attracted to and so are interested in pursuing a romantic or physical relationship.

  • The word sexy could be included in flirty banter, as long as the person you're speaking with doesn't seem uncomfortable with it.
  • A close friend who is getting dressed for a date might appreciate being told that he or she looks sexy.
  • The word sexy could be used to describe a movie star, athlete, singer, or another public figure you find appealing.
  • If a close friend is expressing fear of never dating again after a break-up, consider reminding the person that they are sexy.
  • You could use the word sexy to describe your romantic partner as a way of expressing that you find him or her desirable.
  • You might want to use sexy to refer to a special setting, such as a candlelight dinner or rose petals leading to the bedroom.

When You Should Never Say Sexy

The above list doesn't represent every situation in which sexy is acceptable. Always consider the relationship and use common sense. It's important to be aware that there situations in which the word sexy (or any related terms) should not be used.

  • Never use it in a work-related or professional setting or with coworkers. Don't tell your boss or peers that you find them sexy.
  • Do not use the word to describe a child or children's things, such as clothes or toys.
  • Unless you have a specific reason for doing so, such as building up someone after a break-up, don't use the word sexy with or about your family members.
  • Avoid using the word sexy unless you are 100% sure it is appropriate in the situation. When in doubt, leave it out. That's the safest option!

Example Sentences Using Sexy

For more perspective on when the word sexy can be an appropriate term to use, consider these example sentences that use the word sexy.

Describing People as Sexy

The word sexy is most often used to describe people, or characteristics of people, that are appealing in a sexual way.

  • Marilyn Monroe is remembered as one of the first sexy bombshells on the big screen.
  • Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt played sexy vampires in Interview With a Vampire.
  • Those strappy sandals make your legs look really sexy.
  • My new boyfriend's voice is so sexy.
  • Brianna looks so sexy now that she has let her hair grow so long.
  • To me, there's nothing sexier than a man who cooks.
  • While Anna is not classically beautiful, I find her very sexy.

Describing Things as Sexy

The term can also be used to describe objects or items that one finds to be appealing or attractive. While there doesn't have to be an element of sexual appeal when using the word this way, it is often used for things that have a visceral or unique appeal, such as a sleek, sporty-looking car or truly innovative ideas.

  • Did you get a new Corvette? That sure is a sexy little car!
  • Those stilettos are certainly a sexy addition to your footwear wardrobe.
  • Tameka's new outfit sure is a sexy ensemble.
  • We've come up with some sexy ideas to design your outdoor living space.
  • You're still using outdated server-based software? Cloud-based apps are so much sexier.
  • Grammar might not be the sexiest subject, but it's important to know.
  • After dealing with responsibility all week, I'm looking forward to a sexy weekend getaway with my husband.

Making Sense of Sexy Meaning

Sexy is just a four-letter word, but it's very meaningful. Now that you know a lot more about this word, from what it means to how it should (and should not!) be used, it's time to go beyond sexy to explore the English language even further. Turn your attention to another word that's used to describe a different kind of attraction: beautiful. We break down the word and give you insights on the many different ways to use and say beautiful. You may even want to investigate how to say beautiful in other languages.