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cun·​ning ˈkə-niŋ How to pronounce cunning (audio)
: dexterous or crafty in the use of special resources (such as skill or knowledge) or in attaining an end
a cunning plotter
: characterized by wiliness and trickery
cunning schemes
: prettily appealing : cute
a cunning little kitten
: displaying keen insight
a cunning observation
cunningly adverb
cunningness noun


2 of 2


: dexterous skill and subtlety (as in inventing, devising, or executing)
high-ribbed vault … with perfect cunning framedWilliam Wordsworth
: magic art
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
But because the time and place of an animal’s death are rarely predictable, the vulture’s reliance on carrion has forged, along with a flexible neck for poking into corpses and a featherless head for easy self-cleaning, a creative, cunning and wide-ranging mind. Natalie Angier, New York Times, 12 Nov. 2023 The cautionary tale of Prometheus Prometheus, a clever and cunning immortal figure from Greek myth, was known for stealing fire from the gods and gifting it to humans. Paige Hagy, Fortune, 16 Oct. 2023 Drafters this season were patient, cunning, and frugal. Joe Reid, Vulture, 11 Oct. 2023 San Franciscans fed up with self-driving taxis taking over their city have found a cunning way to stop the vehicles in their tracks. Chloe Taylor, Fortune, 10 July 2023 Del Toro plays all of this with a seesaw cunning that keeps the audience agreeably off balance. Owen Gleiberman, Variety, 26 Sep. 2023 Their Imelda is a victim of poverty and mistreatment, dim despite her cunning and innocent by reason of inanity. Jesse Green, New York Times, 21 July 2023 And so Reid, cunning and ruthless in equal measure, leveraged his enormous clout and fundraising muscle to turn Nevada’s creaky state party into a campaign juggernaut, Mark Barabak writes in the latest story in his series about Democratic success in the West. David Lauter, Los Angeles Times, 15 Sep. 2023 Starring Matt Bomer and Tim DeKay, the series follows a cunning con artist (Bomer) who teams up with an FBI agent (DeKay) to catch criminals in exchange for a shorter sentence. Kelsie Gibson, Peoplemag, 13 Sep. 2023
In both shows, Perry played Mike Kresteva, the cunning, conniving and lying politician and lawyer who would do anything to succeed. Keith Langston, Peoplemag, 2 Nov. 2023 Such is the tactic by which Brooks and the other sovereigns of self-help, with considerable skill and a pinch of cunning, advance their cause. Anthony Lane, The New Yorker, 16 Oct. 2023 But his emotions were leavened with zealous cunning. Sam Kiley, CNN, 14 Oct. 2023 Committing a hit may be mostly about counting down the minutes and hours, but Fincher builds the sequence with a veteran suspense filmmaker’s cunning. Owen Gleiberman, Variety, 3 Sep. 2023 Shiv’s real cunning is at play at the memorial service when her smooth demeanor wins her crucial uninterrupted minutes with the presidential hopeful Mencken. Shelly Tan, Washington Post, 26 May 2023 Admirers of autocracy around the world would have lauded Putin’s ruthlessness and cunning. Hal Brands, Foreign Affairs, 14 Feb. 2023 And the leprosy bacteria has benefitted from a truly masterful stroke of evolutionary cunning. Nathaniel Scharping, Discover Magazine, 12 Oct. 2018 But as Last Summer progresses, the tide gets reversed and Anne more clearly gains the upper hand, using her legal cunning to box Théo into a corner. Jordan Mintzer, The Hollywood Reporter, 27 May 2023 See More

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

Word History


Adjective and Noun

Middle English, from present participle of can know

First Known Use


14th century, in the meaning defined at sense 1


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

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

Dictionary Entries Near cunning

Cite this Entry

“Cunning.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 11 Dec. 2023.

Kids Definition


1 of 2 adjective
cun·​ning ˈkən-iŋ How to pronounce cunning (audio)
: very good or very clever at using special knowledge or skills or at getting something done
a cunning detective
: showing keen understanding
a cunning observation
: marked by deception and trickery
cunningly adverb
cunningness noun


2 of 2 noun
: cleverness in getting what one wants often by tricks or deceiving

More from Merriam-Webster on cunning

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