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 Eriksson Ek's approach is much more cantankerous, an unapologetic aggressiveness that bristles the opposition. Sarah Mclellan, Star Tribune, 15 May 2021 Among the adjustments all incoming rookies must make to the Spurs’ program: Figuring out when the team’s at-times cantankerous coach is going for comical relief. Jeff Mcdonald, San Antonio Express-News, 29 Apr. 2021 And in the play’s strongest moments, Dugan endearingly conveys her enviable toughness and cantankerous wit. Margaret Gray, Los Angeles Times, 27 Apr. 2021 In contrast to that jubilant event, the funeral for the charismatic and at times cantankerous prince will be somber and scaled down due, in part, to coronavirus restrictions. Saphora Smith, NBC News, 17 Apr. 2021 As an interesting side note, this little pirate ship included the solitary (and sometimes cantankerous) engineer, Steve Anderson, who produced Ford police packages, under the glamorous banner DSO, for Dealer Special Order. Mark Ewing, Forbes, 15 Apr. 2021 In the yacht's library, the character Lizzie falls into a conversation with Joseph, a poet, a plain-spoken, cantankerous old dude. Laurie Hertzel, Star Tribune, 2 Apr. 2021 Had this not been an old rule, designed to free social life from cantankerous strife, Miss Manners would have had to invent it. Washington Post, 23 Mar. 2021 Even after leaving the House, Pudlin continued to serve as a devoted — and, at times, cantankerous — mentor to up-and-coming state Democrats. Eliza Fawcett,, 20 Mar. 2021

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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The first known use of cantankerous was in 1772

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Last Updated

19 May 2021

Cite this Entry

“Cantankerous.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 24 Jun. 2021.

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More Definitions for cantankerous



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

More from Merriam-Webster on cantankerous

Thesaurus: All synonyms and antonyms for cantankerous

Nglish: Translation of cantankerous for Spanish Speakers


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