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.

Examples of hyena in a Sentence

Recent Examples on the Web After her fistula left her stinking of leaking waste, villagers took her to an exposed hut on the edge of town to be eaten by hyenas. Isobel Coleman, Foreign Affairs, 1 Jan. 2010 Julian is all smiles one minute and howling like a hyena the next. Ashlea Halpern, Condé Nast Traveler, 9 Jan. 2024 Subversion, in other words, is the hyena of international relations. William C. Wohlforth, Foreign Affairs, 22 June 2021 Wandering hyenas and cattle contaminated the water shared among the village. Acsah Lemma, Sacramento Bee, 13 June 2024 See all Example Sentences for hyena 

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

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

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Cite this Entry

“Hyena.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/hyena. Accessed 15 Jul. 2024.

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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