1
: serving no useful purpose : completely ineffective
efforts to convince him were futile
2
: occupied with trifles : frivolous
futilely
ˈfyü-tᵊl-(l)ē How to pronounce futile (audio)
-ˌtī(-ə)l-lē
adverb
futileness
ˈfyü-tᵊl-nəs How to pronounce futile (audio)
-ˌtī(-ə)l-nəs
noun

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Futile broke into 16th-century English as a Latinate borrowing from Middle French. The Latin derivative, fūtilis, was used to describe things that are brittle or fragile and, by extension, things serving no purpose or being pointless. These meanings survive in the English futile, which denotes ineffectiveness or frivolousness. In 1827, English author Robert Southey found use for the word by blending it into utilitarian to form futilitarian, a word that is used for anyone who believes that human striving is futile—that is, ineffective and/or frivolous.

Choose the Right Synonym for futile

futile, vain, fruitless mean producing no result.

futile may connote completeness of failure or unwisdom of undertaking.

resistance had proved so futile that surrender was the only choice left

vain usually implies simple failure to achieve a desired result.

a vain attempt to get the car started

fruitless comes close to vain but often suggests long and arduous effort or severe disappointment.

fruitless efforts to obtain a lasting peace

Examples of futile in a Sentence

In a digitized land of national ID cards, dropping out will be impossible, and dreaming about it will be futile. Walter Kirn, Atlantic, May 2002
After Redemption and disfranchisement destroyed black political influence, open challenges to white supremacy were futile and dangerous. Adam Fairclough, Journal of American History, June 2000
In some futile bid for gentility, the management has barred employees from using the front door, so my first day I enter through the kitchen … Barbara Ehrenreich, Harper's, January 1999
In 1845 explorer Charles Sturt led an expedition through these parts on a futile search for an inland sea. Thomas O'Neill, National Geographic, April 1997
All our efforts proved futile. a futile and foolish gesture See More
Recent Examples on the Web Efforts by Egypt, Qatar and the U.S. to broker a cease-fire deal have proved futile since the weeklong November pause in fighting that allowed for release of more than 100 hostages. John Bacon, USA TODAY, 22 Feb. 2024 The waiting periods, and the fact that garnering enough signatures can take weeks, often renders the maneuver futile for time-sensitive legislation. Kaia Hubbard, CBS News, 16 Feb. 2024 The key takeaway is that worrying about which cryptographic algorithm is better is futile. Kevin Bocek, Forbes, 15 Feb. 2024 At a contentious Oval Office meeting several days later, Trump sidelined the campaign lawyers and instead made Giuliani the point man for the rush of ultimately futile lawsuits challenging the election. Danny Hakim, New York Times, 8 Jan. 2024 The Biden White House has sometimes fought hard for administration nominees, even if the battle was ultimately futile. David Mark, Washington Examiner, 4 Jan. 2024 Finding, spotting or trapping free-roaming dogs here can seem futile at times. Susanne Rust, Los Angeles Times, 4 Jan. 2024 Find it on Amazon Channel Your Inner Gatsby With These Coupe Cocktail Glasses The fight between flute and coupe glasses is futile. Taylor Gumm, Rolling Stone, 22 Jan. 2024 Enabling moderation rather than abstinence: An outright war to remove technology from our lives is futile and unhelpful. Royce Branning, Fortune, 9 Jan. 2024 See More

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

Word History

Etymology

borrowed from Middle French & Latin; Middle French, borrowed from Latin fūtilis, futtilis "brittle, fragile (of containers), serving no purpose, pointless," perhaps (if original sense was "leaky") from fū- (going back to Indo-European heu̯- "pour, shed") + -tilis "obtained by, characterized by (the action of the verb)" — more at found entry 5

First Known Use

circa 1555, in the meaning defined at sense 1

Time Traveler
The first known use of futile was circa 1555

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Dictionary Entries Near futile

Cite this Entry

“Futile.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/futile. Accessed 1 Mar. 2024.

Kids Definition

futile

adjective
1
: having no result or effect : useless
all our efforts proved futile
a futile and foolish gesture
2
: concerned with unimportant matters
futile pleasures
futilely
-ᵊl-(l)ē How to pronounce futile (audio)
-ˌtīl-lē
adverb
futileness
-ᵊl-nəs How to pronounce futile (audio)
-ˌtīl-nəs
noun

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