car·​di·​nal | \ ˈkärd-nəl How to pronounce cardinal (audio) , ˈkär-də- \
plural cardinals

Definition of cardinal

 (Entry 1 of 2)

1 : a high ecclesiastical official of the Roman Catholic Church who ranks next below the pope and is appointed by him to assist him as a member of the college of cardinals (see college sense 4)
2 : cardinal number usually used in plural
3a [from its color, resembling that of the cardinal's robes] : a crested finch (Cardinalis cardinalis of the family Cardinalidae) of the eastern U.S. and adjacent Canada, the southwestern U.S., and Mexico to Belize which has a black face and heavy red bill in both sexes and is nearly completely red in the male
b : any of several red-headed passerine birds (genus Paroaria of the family Thraupidae) of South America and the West Indies that are grayish to blackish above with white underparts



Definition of cardinal (Entry 2 of 2)

1 : of basic importance a cardinal principle
2 : very serious or grave a cardinal sin

Illustration of cardinal

Illustration of cardinal


cardinal 3

In the meaning defined above

Other Words from cardinal


cardinalship \ ˈkärd-​nəl-​ˌship How to pronounce cardinal (audio) , ˈkär-​də-​ \ noun


cardinally adverb

Choose the Right Synonym for cardinal


essential, fundamental, vital, cardinal mean so important as to be indispensable. essential implies belonging to the very nature of a thing and therefore being incapable of removal without destroying the thing itself or its character. conflict is essential in drama fundamental applies to something that is a foundation without which an entire system or complex whole would collapse. fundamental principles of algebra vital suggests something that is necessary to a thing's continued existence or operation. cut off from vital supplies cardinal suggests something on which an outcome turns or depends. a cardinal rule in buying a home

Did you know?

Our word cardinal goes back to the Latin adjective cardinalis, which meant “serving as a hinge.” The root of this word is the noun cardo, meaning “hinge.” Since a hinge is the device on which a door turns, cardo came to mean “something on which a development turns” or “something very important.” Later the Roman Catholic Church used the adjective cardinalis to refer to principal churches and priests and then to mean “a clergyman of the highest rank, next to the pope.” When borrowed into English, cardinalis became cardinal. A cardinal's robes are a deep red color, and this color influenced the naming of the bird whose color was like that of a cardinal's robes.

Examples of cardinal in a Sentence

Noun The Pope appointed two new cardinals this year. Adjective the cardinal principles of news reporting My cardinal rule is to always be honest.
Recent Examples on the Web: Noun Heads rolling on cobblestones, the robes of kings and cardinals, Matisse's The Red Studio, the red in the tricolor flag of Liberty Leading the People by Delacroix. David Coggins, Town & Country, 10 Dec. 2015 In fact a number of the cardinals from Brazil and bishops are friends of Pope Francis. Bradley J. Fikes,, 7 June 2017 One small clearing is dotted with several boulders where children could sit and watch for goldfinches and cardinals at three bird feeders. Jim Barnes, Washington Post, 8 May 2017 There are deer in the woods, large-mouth bass in the water and cardinals in the air. Jeanne Houck,, 28 Apr. 2017 A year later, Pope John Paul II made Pell a cardinal. Andrew Sullivan, Daily Intelligencer, 30 June 2017 A cardinal in charge of the Vatican's finances has been charged with multiple sexual offenses by Australian police, in one of the most significant indictments against a top-ranking leader of the Catholic Church. Julie Zauzmer, Alaska Dispatch News, 29 June 2017 His January 20 inauguration ceremony featured an unprecedented six speakers, including a rabbi and a cardinal. Adam Chandler, The Atlantic, 25 May 2017 The main Italian in the cast is Silvio Orlando as a beleaguered, mole-flecked cardinal tasked with advising this cocky young Pope, and thwarted at nearly every turn. Richard Lawson,, 13 Jan. 2017 Recent Examples on the Web: Adjective Instead, Insteon committed the cardinal sin of smart home companies: leaving customers—and their gear—in the lurch. Ron Amadeo, Ars Technica, 18 Apr. 2022 Its complex transportation network was misaligned, a cardinal sin in DeJoy’s logistics world. Washington Post, 12 Apr. 2022 And what of the cardinal sin of Hollywood Week-forgetting the lyrics? Michele Amabile Angermiller, Variety, 28 Mar. 2022 As somber as the rituals of graduation may be, most commencement speakers try to honor one cardinal rule: keep the speech brief, minimizing the one final episode of boredom that graduates’ soon-to-be alma maters will inflict upon them. Michael T. Nietzel, Forbes, 19 Mar. 2022 There was a mini-revolt among GOP senators this week in support of Sen. Mike Rounds of South Dakota, who had committed the cardinal sin of pointing out the truth that Biden actually won the 2020 election. Stephen Collinson, CNN, 14 Jan. 2022 The cardinal rule of stretching remains: never force a stretch beyond the point of light irritation. Gerard Hartmann, Outside Online, 21 July 2021 The second cardinal rule for observing snowy owls is to never feed them. Paul A. Smith, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 20 Dec. 2021 In Japan, the four cardinal seasons are experienced in six phases. Demetrius Simms, Robb Report, 7 Jan. 2022 See More

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

First Known Use of cardinal


before the 12th century, in the meaning defined at sense 1


14th century, in the meaning defined at sense 1

History and Etymology for cardinal


Middle English, from Anglo-French, from Medieval Latin cardinalis, from Late Latin cardinalis, adjective — see cardinal entry 2


Middle English, from Late Latin cardinalis, from Latin, serving as a hinge, from cardin-, cardo hinge

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Time Traveler for cardinal

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The first known use of cardinal was before the 12th century

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Dictionary Entries Near cardinal



cardinal's hat

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Cite this Entry

“Cardinal.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 16 May. 2022.

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More Definitions for cardinal


car·​di·​nal | \ ˈkärd-nəl How to pronounce cardinal (audio) , ˈkär-də- \

Kids Definition of cardinal

 (Entry 1 of 2)

1 : a high official of the Roman Catholic Church ranking next below the pope
2 : a bright red songbird with a crest and a whistling call



Kids Definition of cardinal (Entry 2 of 2)

: of first importance : main, principal Arnold Jones had apparently forgotten one of the cardinal rules of survival …— Jerry Spinelli, Maniac Magee

More from Merriam-Webster on cardinal

Nglish: Translation of cardinal for Spanish Speakers

Britannica English: Translation of cardinal for Arabic Speakers Encyclopedia article about cardinal


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