The Meaning of Primitive: What It Is and How To Use It

Have you ever been confused by the definition of primitive? This article will provide you with all of the information you need on the word primitive, including its definition, etymology, usage, example sentences, and more!

Your writing, at its best

Compose bold, clear, mistake-free, writing with Grammarly's AI-powered writing assistant

What does the word primitive mean?

According to Collins English Dictionary and the American Heritage Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language, the word primitive is an adjective that describes something having a characteristic of simplicity, having an original simplicity for technical use  or characteristic of an early stage of development of humankind, or characteristic of an early state. This word is also used in mathematics to refer to a geometric or algebraic form or expression from which another is derived, or an algebraic form in which the derivative is a given function.

Many things can be primitive, including a primitive mathematical expression, cruse weapons, the rude agricultural implements of early man, the primitive movies of the 1890s,  primitive living conditions of the okapi, primitive innocence, primitive instructions, a primitive basic geometric shape, a primitive style of dress, primitive mammals from early times or a former time, a low level programming language, primitive tribal culture, a primitive fundamental unit of machine instruction, a primitive tribal society, a nonindustrial social system, primitive toolmaking, a primitive early state of human development, primitive cave drawings in comparison to avant-garde standards of Western painting, early ancestors from the Renaissance era, an unschooled artist’s characteristics of primitive painters, primitive forms of life, a primitive early age of the world, the earliest period like the Palaeozoic Era, a primitive dwelling, a primitive ancestral type work of art or European painting, a primitive early stage of civilization or evolution, a primitive art or primitive artist lacking formal training, a primitive society, and more. 

Many different languages also contain words that mean primitive. You may notice that some of these translations of primitive look and sound similar to one another. These are called cognates, which are words and phrases in different languages that likely have the same root or language of origin, causing them to sound the same. The below list of translations of primitive is provided by Word Sense

  •  Latin: primitivus‎
  •  Japanese: 原始的‎ (げんしてき, genshiteki)
  •  Portuguese: primitivo‎ (masc.), primitiva‎ (fem.)
  •  Romanian: primitiv‎
  •  Korean: 원시‎
  •  Finnish: alkeellinen‎
  •  Esperanto: primitiva‎
  •  Catalan: primitiu‎
  •  Mandarin: 原始‎ (yuánshǐ)
  •  Serbo-Croatian: prȉmitīvan‎
  •  Tagalog: baruwang‎
  •  Greek: πρωτόγονος‎
  •  Dutch: primitief‎
  •  German: ursprünglich‎, primitiv‎
  •  Spanish: primitivo‎ (masc.)
  •  Polish: prymitywny‎ (masc.)
  •  French: primitif‎
  •  Czech: primitivní‎
  •  Italian: primitivo‎
  •  Russian: примити́вный‎

What is the origin of primitive?

According to Etymonline, the word primitive  has been used since the 11c Middle English prymytyff. This comes from the Middle French primitif, Old French primitif and  Medieval Latin prīmitīvus/Latin primitivus, from the Latin prīmitus and prīmus/primus using the stem itus and īvus which led to ive.

How can the word primitive be used in a sentence?

The word primitive can be used in many different contexts in the English language. Trying to use a word in a sentence is one of the best ways to memorize its definition and add it to your vocabulary, but you can also try making flashcards or quizzes that test your knowledge. Try using this word of the day in a sentence today! Below are a couple of  examples of the word primitive that can help get you started incorporating this word into your vocabulary.  

A painter of any era would seem primitive compared to the modern painters. 

The primitive tools were made at an early stage of technical development, even Grandma Moses didn’t recognize them. 

The primitive linguistic form from the early formation of the oceanic civilization was difficult to decipher.

The primitive minority group sect  bore physical similarities to the modern humans in the history of the world.

Picket found crude weapons and the short-necked primitive cousin of the giraffe in the Appalachian Mountains. He used this data type to study the technological complexity.

What are synonyms and antonyms of primitive?

There are many different words that one can use in place of the word primitive (adj.). These are considered synonyms, which are words that have the same definition as another word or phrase. Synonyms are useful to know if you are trying to avoid repeating yourself or if you are looking to expand your vocabulary. This list of synonyms for the word primitive is provided by Power Thesaurus.

  •  outmoded
  •  underdeveloped
  •  antiquated
  •  primaeval
  •  beginning
  •  uncivilized
  •  prehistorical
  •  unaffected
  •  obsolete
  •  initial
  •  elementary
  •  barbarous
  •  mediaeval
  •  embryonic
  •  pristine
  •  unrefined
  •  uncivilised
  •  larval
  •  outdated
  •  indigenous
  •  coarse
  •  barbarian
  •  philistine
  •  rustic
  •  aboriginal
  •  primordial
  •  former
  •  rough
  •  autochthonous
  •  noncivilized
  •  heathen
  •  fundamental
  •  makeshift
  •  uncouth
  •  benighted
  •  ignorant
  •  earlier
  •  prehistoric
  •  primeval
  •  essential
  •  olden
  •  barbaric
  •  earliest
  •  primary
  •  unpolished
  •  undeveloped
  •  brutish
  •  untamed
  •  naive
  •  old
  •  early
  •  bushman
  •  archaic
  •  unprocessed
  •  aborigine
  •  antediluvian
  •  first
  •  backward
  •  crude
  •  anthropophaginian
  •  natural
  •  rude
  •  uncultured
  •  medieval
  •  simple
  •  primal
  •  plasmic
  •  aw-shucks
  •  underlying
  •  unsophisticated
  •  nonliterate
  •  passe
  •  vulgar
  •  savage
  •  incipient
  •  raw
  •  uncultivated
  •  basic
  •  prime
  •  elemental
  •  grown old
  •  rough and ready
  •  atavistic
  •  original
  •  feudal
  •  bush dweller
  •  out of date
  •  old-fashioned
  •  native
  •  organic
  •  vestigial
  •  ancient
  •  wild
  •  rudimentary
  •  primogenial
  •  chthonic
  •  artless
  •  antique
  •  rudimental
  •  in a state of nature

There are also many different words that have the opposite meaning as the word primitive. These are considered antonyms. Antonyms are also very useful to know if you want to expand your vocabulary and knowledge of the English language. This list of antonyms for the word primitive is also provided by Power Thesaurus

  •  multiskilled
  •  careful
  •  great
  •  trained
  •  one-of-a-kind
  •  highly developed
  •  modern
  •  good
  •  ahead of the pack
  •  high
  •  completely refined
  •  been around the block a few times
  •  current
  •  contemporary
  •  highly-skilled
  •  bleeding edge
  •  evolved
  •  above the salt
  •  cultured
  •  complicated
  •  new
  •  ahead of time
  •  arty-farty
  •  complex
  •  creative
  •  recent
  •  ultramodern
  •  advanced
  •  charitable
  •  ancillary
  •  newfangled
  •  critical
  •  ripe
  •  completely improved
  •  cynical
  •  avant-garde
  •  futuristic
  •  completely progressive
  •  class act
  •  intricate
  •  civilized
  •  cautious
  •  completely advanced
  •  cosmopolitan
  •  completely evolved
  •  latest
  •  completely developed
  •  bohemian
  •  cultivated
  •  civilised

Overall, the word primitive means basic or old fashioned.


  1. Primitive | Word Sense
  2. Primitive synonyms – 1 136 Words and Phrases for Primitive | Power Thesaurus 
  3. Primitive antonyms – 305 Opposites of Primitive | Power Thesaurus 
  4. Primitive definition and meaning | Collins English Dictionary 
  5. primitive | Origin and meaning of primitive | Online Etymology Dictionary