cun·​ning | \ ˈkə-niŋ How to pronounce cunning (audio) \

Definition of cunning

 (Entry 1 of 2)

1 : dexterous or crafty in the use of special resources (such as skill or knowledge) or in attaining an end a cunning plotter
2 : characterized by wiliness and trickery cunning schemes
3 : prettily appealing : cute a cunning little kitten
4 : displaying keen insight a cunning observation



Definition of cunning (Entry 2 of 2)

1 : dexterous skill and subtlety (as in inventing, devising, or executing) high-ribbed vault … with perfect cunning framed— William Wordsworth
2 : craft, slyness
3 obsolete
b : magic art

Other Words from cunning


cunningly \ ˈkə-​niŋ-​lē How to pronounce cunning (audio) \ adverb
cunningness noun

Choose the Right Synonym for cunning


clever, adroit, cunning, ingenious mean having or showing practical wit or skill in contriving. clever stresses physical or mental quickness, deftness, or great aptitude. a person clever with horses adroit often implies a skillful use of expedients to achieve one's purpose in spite of difficulties. an adroit negotiator cunning implies great skill in constructing or creating. a filmmaker cunning in his use of special effects ingenious suggests the power of inventing or discovering a new way of accomplishing something. an ingenious software engineer

sly, cunning, crafty, wily, tricky, foxy, artful, slick mean attaining or seeking to attain one's ends by guileful or devious means. sly implies furtiveness, lack of candor, and skill in concealing one's aims and methods. a sly corporate raider cunning suggests the inventive use of sometimes limited intelligence in overreaching or circumventing. the cunning fox avoided the trap crafty implies cleverness and subtlety of method. a crafty lefthander wily implies skill and deception in maneuvering. the wily fugitive escaped the posse tricky is more likely to suggest shiftiness and unreliability than skill in deception and maneuvering. a tricky political operative foxy implies a shrewd and wary craftiness usually involving devious dealing. a foxy publicity man planting stories artful implies indirectness in dealing and often connotes sophistication or cleverness. elicited the information by artful questioning slick emphasizes smoothness and guile. slick operators selling time-sharing


art, skill, cunning, artifice, craft mean the faculty of executing well what one has devised. art implies a personal, unanalyzable creative power. the art of choosing the right word skill stresses technical knowledge and proficiency. the skill of a glassblower cunning suggests ingenuity and subtlety in devising, inventing, or executing. a mystery plotted with great cunning artifice suggests technical skill especially in imitating things in nature. believed realism in film could be achieved only by artifice craft may imply expertness in workmanship. the craft of a master goldsmith

Examples of cunning in a Sentence

Adjective … this cat has made his way into the Fitness Center for cunning reasons of his own and reveals himself only to certain privileged individuals. — Joyce Carol Oates, Harper's, June 2008 Throughout his time hunting the vampire, Manolito had been wounded and poisoned on many occasions, but still he'd survived because he'd always used his brain. He was cunning and shrewd and very intelligent. — Christine Feehan, Dark Possession, 2007 I have recounted the advice I received from an old-timer about how to keep raccoons out of garbage cans—advice that eventually included the purchase of a combination lock. ("A raccoon's cunning, but he's got no head for figures.") — Calvin Trillin, New Yorker, 11 Oct. 1993 A cunning politician is often found skulking under the clerical robe, with an outside all religion, and an inside all political rancour. — Washington Irving, A History of New York, 1809, in History, Tales and Sketches(1977) 1983 So the Leader went into his den and looked at his children—two very cunning little cubs, lying on the floor. — Hugh Lofting, The Story of Doctor Dolittle, 1920 She was cunning enough to fool me. a cunning, underhanded plan to win the election by preying on people's fears and prejudices Noun The writing is best in the play's later scenes, when More deploys his legal cunning to help him weasel out of a political trap set by the oleaginous Thomas Cromwell … — John Lahr, New Yorker, 20 Oct. 2008 Tsvetaeva was lacking, moreover, in any instinct for cunning or self-preservation, or even for what might be called mere getting along … — Claudia Roth Pierpont, New Yorker, 7 Feb. 1994 He could see no change, save that in the eyes there was a look of cunning and in the mouth the curved wrinkle of the hypocrite. — Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, 1891 He may be a fraud, but you have to admire his cunning. the cunning with which Tom Sawyer was able to get others to whitewash the fence for him See More
Recent Examples on the Web: Adjective Scheherazade is also President Vladimir Putin’s $700-million superyacht, according to Russian investigative journalists—and its ability to survive being seized by Western governments will require far more cunning than storytelling. Vivienne Walt, Fortune, 22 Mar. 2022 The new season features the debut of Bautista as Edo Voss, the estranged brother of Jason Momoa's Baba Voss and a powerful and cunning general. Tyler Aquilina,, 29 July 2021 At least that's what was told to them by Marshall Applewhite, the cunning and charismatic leader of the group that called themselves Heaven's Gate. Mary Ellen Cagnassola,, 26 Mar. 2022 Fewer pundits will wax poetic over Mr. Putin’s cunning and strategic brilliance. Douglas London, WSJ, 23 Mar. 2022 But Stickgold’s experiments represent cunning ways to smuggle something every dreamer knows into the objective world of science. Michael W. Clune, Harper’s Magazine , 16 Mar. 2022 If a deal makes, Butler will play Feyd-Rautha, the cunning nephew of the baron, who heads House Harkonnen. Borys Kit, The Hollywood Reporter, 10 Mar. 2022 This cunning approach makes music sound louder without producing the higher sound pressure levels that can damage hearing and without sacrificing a clean and natural sound. Mark Sparrow, Forbes, 26 Jan. 2022 On hand was Zoey Deutch, who steals the show as the female lead in the mobster drama that unfolds entirely within the cutting room of a Savile Row savant-turned-cunning Chicago kingpin played by Sir Mark Rylance. Zachary Weiss, Vogue, 11 Mar. 2022 Recent Examples on the Web: Noun To go in knowing little or nothing about the play may be the purest way to experience its dramatic cunning. Naveen Kumar, Variety, 17 Apr. 2022 If talks fail, Bennett could appear to have been outsmarted by Putin's cunning and could be blamed for the conflict having worsened. Tia Goldenberg, ajc, 6 Mar. 2022 If talks fail, Bennett could appear to have been outsmarted by Putin's cunning and could be blamed for the conflict having worsened. Tia Goldenberg, The Christian Science Monitor, 6 Mar. 2022 There also isn’t any record of their possessing any abilities more superhuman than cunning and charisma. Joe Leydon, Variety, 4 Apr. 2022 Barr was easily Trump’s most effective and important Cabinet member, and showed far more competence and cunning than Trump’s prior attorneys general, Jeff Sessions and the mercifully brief acting AG Matt Whitaker. Washington Post, 1 Mar. 2022 Despite framing his actions in terms of criminal cunning, Al has a visionary streak. Matt Zoller Seitz, Vulture, 18 Dec. 2021 This film is a lot like its titular beasts: big, splashy, and sometimes quite dumb on the surface, yet full of animal-like cunning and the ability to land massive blows at crucial moments. Ars Staff, Ars Technica, 30 Dec. 2021 Much of that suspense arises from wondering just how long Diop can maintain the high-wire act, given Pellegrini's vast resources and formidable cunning. Ars Staff, Ars Technica, 31 Dec. 2021 See More

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

First Known Use of cunning


14th century, in the meaning defined at sense 1


14th century, in the meaning defined at sense 3a

History and Etymology for cunning

Adjective and Noun

Middle English, from present participle of can know

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Time Traveler for cunning

Time Traveler

The first known use of cunning was in the 14th century

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Last Updated

2 May 2022

Cite this Entry

“Cunning.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 23 May. 2022.

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More Definitions for cunning


cun·​ning | \ ˈkə-niŋ How to pronounce cunning (audio) \

Kids Definition of cunning

 (Entry 1 of 2)

1 : skillful and clever at using special knowledge or at getting something done a cunning craftsman
2 : showing craftiness and trickery a cunning plot a cunning thief



Kids Definition of cunning (Entry 2 of 2)

1 : skill sense 1, dexterity … they … felt the love of beautiful things made by hands and by cunning— J. R. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit
2 : cleverness or skill especially at tricking people in order to get something … she had been defeated by the superior cunning of the aged witch …— L. Frank Baum, The Marvelous Land of Oz

More from Merriam-Webster on cunning

Nglish: Translation of cunning for Spanish Speakers

Britannica English: Translation of cunning for Arabic Speakers


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