hy·​e·​na hī-ˈē-nə How to pronounce hyena (audio)
plural hyenas also hyena
: any of several large strong nocturnal carnivorous Old World mammals (family Hyaenidae) that usually feed as scavengers
hī-ˈē-nik How to pronounce hyena (audio)

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There are three species of hyena— doglike carnivores found in Asia and Africa. Actually more closely related to cats than to dogs, hyenas have coarse fur, four toes on each foot, long forelegs, claws that do not retract, and enormously strong jaws and teeth. They live alone or in packs and may be active by night or day. Hyenas are noted for scavenging but will also attack live prey. The spotted, or laughing, hyena, whose calls alternately resemble wailing and maniacal laughter, ranges through much of sub-Saharan Africa. Yellowish or grayish with dark spots, it is about 6½ ft (1.8 m) long, including the 12-in (30-cm) tail, and weighs up to 175 lb (80 kg). The hyena has been known to attack people and even to carry off young children.

Example Sentences

Recent Examples on the Web Perhaps female power, attained through social support or reproductive outcomes, led to lemur syndrome and its hyena equivalent. Bridget Alex, Discover Magazine, 6 Feb. 2020 Jiang found five more: the aardwolf (a termite-eating hyena), Canadian otter, spectacled bear, raccoon, and red wolf. Ed Yong, Discover Magazine, 13 Mar. 2012 The show focuses on the lives of three African matriarchs: an elephant, a hyena and a striped mongoose. Leo Barraclough, Variety, 16 Oct. 2022 Rowley captured a hyena scavenging for scraps left behind by humans on a roadway outside Harar, Ethiopia. Kelli Bender, Peoplemag, 13 Dec. 2022 But the family’s ship sinks in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and he is stranded on a lifeboat with a hyena, a zebra, an orangutan, and a Royal Bengal tiger. Juliet Pennington, BostonGlobe.com, 24 Nov. 2022 For dinosaurs that principally bit down with their jaws like a hyena—rather than catching with claws like a cat—having little arms that were out of the way may have prevented them from being broken, torn off or otherwise injured. Riley Black, Smithsonian Magazine, 7 July 2022 On her daily visits to the London Zoo, the girl befriends a hyena. Ben Croll, Variety, 19 June 2022 During her character’s meltdowns, often in response to slights and offenses to propriety, Ms. Harris deployed a screech that had the urgency of a hyena in its death throes. New York Times, 3 Apr. 2022 See More

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

Word History


Middle English hyane, hyene, borrowed from Anglo-French hyene, borrowed from Latin hyaena "striped hyena (Hyaena hyaena)," borrowed from Greek hýaina, from hy-, hŷs "swine (of either gender, wild or domesticated)" + -aina, noun suffix — more at sow entry 1

Note: The allusion in the name, which could be taken to mean "female swine," is presumably from the animal's supposed resemblance to a hog. For the value of the suffix -aina, see note at baleen.

First Known Use

14th century, in the meaning defined above

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

Dictionary Entries Near hyena

Cite this Entry

“Hyena.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/hyena. Accessed 3 Feb. 2023.

Kids Definition


hy·​e·​na hī-ˈē-nə How to pronounce hyena (audio)
: any of several large strong Old World mammals that eat flesh and are active at night

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