ag·​o·​nis·​tic ˌa-gə-ˈni-stik How to pronounce agonistic (audio)
: of or relating to the athletic contests of ancient Greece
: striving for effect : strained
: of, relating to, or being aggressive or defensive social interaction (such as fighting, fleeing, or submitting) between individuals usually of the same species
agonistically adverb

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Agonistic has its roots in ancient Greece—specifically in the agonistic (to use the oldest sense of the word) athletic contests called agons featured at public festivals. From physical conflict to verbal jousting, agonistic came to be used as a synonym for argumentative and later to mean "striving for effect" or "strained." Common current use, however, is biological, relating to confrontational interaction among animals of the same species and the responsive behaviors—such as aggression, flight, or submission—they exhibit. Agonistic is also sometimes used to describe an agonist muscle, a muscle that on contracting is automatically checked and controlled by an opposing muscle, that other muscle being an antagonist. For example, during a bicep curl in weight lifting, the (contracted) bicep is the agonistic muscle and the (relaxed) triceps muscle is the antagonist.

Examples of agonistic in a Sentence

clearly a writer with a chip on his shoulder, he's very agonistic even when stating indisputable facts
Recent Examples on the Web The kitchen remains bloody and agonistic, demanding the preparation of yet another family meal. E. Tammy Kim, The New Yorker, 14 July 2023 The agonistic, Faulknerian circumstances fill the house with awful silences. Matthew Gavin Frank, Harper's Magazine, 21 Dec. 2022 The Red Queen is about eternal recurrence of the agonistic dance between organisms. Razib Khan, Discover Magazine, 21 Apr. 2011 Finally, serial attacks may signal the agonistic potential of a family to other flock members. Ncbi Rofl, Discover Magazine, 11 July 2012 Serial agonistic attacks by greylag goose families, Anser anser, against the same opponent. Ncbi Rofl, Discover Magazine, 11 July 2012 But the drive, the bile, the essential, agonistic spirit that powers the greatest rock music and serves as the source of its creativity will almost certainly be lacking. Damon Linker, The Week, 4 Sep. 2021 This agonistic version of the fact-value distinction leaves us with an impoverished ideal of social interaction. Peter E. Gordon, The New York Review of Books, 19 Nov. 2020

These examples are programmatically compiled from various online sources to illustrate current usage of the word 'agonistic.' Any opinions expressed in the examples do not represent those of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback about these examples.

Word History


borrowed from Late Latin agōnisticus "of a contest," borrowed from Greek agōnistikós "fit for a contest, contentious," from agōnistḗs "one engaged in a contest or struggle" + -ikos -ic entry 1 — more at agonist

First Known Use

1656, in the meaning defined at sense 2

Time Traveler
The first known use of agonistic was in 1656


Dictionary Entries Near agonistic

Cite this Entry

“Agonistic.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 25 May. 2024.

Medical Definition


ag·​o·​nis·​tic ˌag-ə-ˈnis-tik How to pronounce agonistic (audio)
: of, relating to, or being aggressive or defensive social interaction (as fighting, fleeing, or submitting) between individuals usually of the same species
agonistic behavior

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