can·​tan·​ker·​ous | \ kan-ˈtaŋ-k(ə-)rəs How to pronounce cantankerous (audio) , kən- \

Definition of cantankerous

: difficult or irritating to deal with a cantankerous mule

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Other Words from cantankerous

cantankerously adverb
cantankerousness noun

The Origin of Cantankerous Is Mysterious

It's irritating, but we're not absolutely sure where "cantankerous" comes from. Etymologists think it probably derived from the Middle English word contack (or "contek"), which meant "contention" or "strife." Their idea is that "cantankerous" may have started out as "contackerous" but was later modified as a result of association or confusion with "rancorous" (meaning "spiteful") and "cankerous" (which describes something that spreads corruption of the mind or spirit). Considering that a cantankerous person generally has the spite associated with "contack" and "rancor," and the noxious and sometimes painful effects of a "canker," that theory seems plausible. What we can say with conviction is that "cantankerous" has been used in English since at least the late 1700s.

Examples of cantankerous in a Sentence

Contemporaries often found him aloof, standoffish, and cantankerous and his mannerisms and diction inscrutable. — Jonathan Spence, New York Review of Books, 22 Oct. 2009 There are those who contend the hockey maven is a cantankerous old coot—rife with unpopular opinions and quick to assert them — Rick Harrison, Newsday, 19 Sept. 2004 … it's something ultimately more memorable: a self-portrait of a coolly cantankerous woman, reformed but unrepentant. — David Gates, New York Times Book Review, 21 Nov. 1999 In his last years, Harriman was the kind of cantankerous old man who once berated a financial planner by threatening to make him sit in the corner and wear a dunce cap. — Bryan Burrough, Vanity Fair, January 1995 a cantankerous old woman who insisted that nothing should ever be allowed to change
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Recent Examples on the Web The double-barrel big bores evolved from double-barrel muzzleloading shotguns first used to slow down large and cantankerous animals. Ron Spomer, Outdoor Life, "The Most Iconic Rifles and Cartridges from African Safaris," 11 June 2020 Humor and patience are your best defense against a cantankerous individual., "Horoscope," 2 June 2020 Jim Schutze, the Dallas Observer columnist known for his often-cantankerous discourses on Dallas life and leadership, has parted ways with the weekly publication after 22 years. Marc Ramirez, Dallas News, "Columnist Jim Schutze leaves Dallas Observer after 22 years," 12 May 2020 Before De Niro and Depardieu take over, the poles of worker-boss antagonism are embodied by Sterling Hayden and Burt Lancaster as a pair of charismatic and cantankerous grandfathers. New York Times, "A Five-Hour Crash Course in Italian History That’s Also Great Filmmaking," 6 May 2020 Even my surliest and most cantankerous neighbors leaned out the window and applauded. Itxu Díaz, National Review, "Coronavirus Is Forcing Europe to Rediscover Civil Society," 2 Apr. 2020 That aphorism, delivered so indelibly by Hanks as the cantankerous manager Jimmy Dugan, is only one of many reasons the director Penny Marshall’s poignant comedy-drama about the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League endures. Bruce Fretts, New York Times, "With Baseball Benched, These Movies Make Good Relievers," 1 Apr. 2020 But cantankerous Woody—a lifelong alcoholic with borderline dementia—wants his million bucks. Cnt Editors, Condé Nast Traveler, "The Best Road Trip Movies," 25 Mar. 2020 His character, Walt Kowalski, is a cantankerous Korean War veteran who hates his Hmong neighbors in a rundown inner Detroit suburb. Tunku Varadarajan, WSJ, "A Hollywood Legend Talks Politics," 21 Feb. 2020

These example sentences are selected automatically from various online news sources to reflect current usage of the word 'cantankerous.' Views expressed in the examples do not represent the opinion of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback.

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First Known Use of cantankerous

1772, in the meaning defined above

History and Etymology for cantankerous

perhaps irregular from obsolete contack contention

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Time Traveler for cantankerous

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The first known use of cantankerous was in 1772

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Last Updated

23 Jun 2020

Cite this Entry

“Cantankerous.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 10 Jul. 2020.

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More Definitions for cantankerous


How to pronounce cantankerous (audio)

English Language Learners Definition of cantankerous

: often angry and annoyed


can·​tan·​ker·​ous | \ kan-ˈtaŋ-kə-rəs How to pronounce cantankerous (audio) \

Kids Definition of cantankerous

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More from Merriam-Webster on cantankerous

Thesaurus: All synonyms and antonyms for cantankerous

Spanish Central: Translation of cantankerous

Nglish: Translation of cantankerous for Spanish Speakers

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