re·​cal·​ci·​trant ri-ˈkal-sə-trənt How to pronounce recalcitrant (audio)
: obstinately defiant of authority or restraint
: difficult to manage or operate
: not responsive to treatment
: resistant
this subject is recalcitrant both to observation and to experimentG. G. Simpson
recalcitrant noun

Did you know?

Long before any human was dubbed "recalcitrant" in English (that first occurred in the 18th century), there were stubborn mules (and horses) kicking back their heels. The ancient Romans noted as much (Pliny the Elder among them), and they had a word for it: recalcitrare, which literally means "to kick back." (Its root calc-, meaning "heel," is also the root of calcaneus, the large bone of the heel in humans.) Certainly Roman citizens in Pliny's time were sometimes willful and hardheaded—as attested by various Latin words meaning "stubborn"—but it wasn't until later that writers of Late Latin applied recalcitrare and its derivative adjective to humans who were stubborn as mules.

Choose the Right Synonym for recalcitrant

unruly, ungovernable, intractable, refractory, recalcitrant, willful, headstrong mean not submissive to government or control.

unruly implies lack of discipline or incapacity for discipline and often connotes waywardness or turbulence of behavior.

unruly children

ungovernable implies either an escape from control or guidance or a state of being unsubdued and incapable of controlling oneself or being controlled by others.

ungovernable rage

intractable suggests stubborn resistance to guidance or control.

intractable opponents of the hazardous-waste dump

refractory stresses resistance to attempts to manage or to mold.

special schools for refractory children

recalcitrant suggests determined resistance to or defiance of authority.

acts of sabotage by a recalcitrant populace

willful implies an obstinate determination to have one's own way.

a willful disregard for the rights of others

headstrong suggests self-will impatient of restraint, advice, or suggestion.

a headstrong young cavalry officer

Example Sentences

But Smith managed to rally and to learn, through trial and error, how to milk what he needed out of an often recalcitrant medical system. Gina Kolata, New York Times Book Review, 7 Sept. 1997
For anyone who has ever struggled to extract a recalcitrant cork from a bottle … the value of a good corkscrew is a given. Ettagale Blauer, Wine Spectator, 31 Oct. 1996
In November 1891, James Naismith, a 32-year-old Canadian-born instructor at the International Y.M.C.A. Training School in Springfield, was asked to invent an indoor game to help tame the members of a recalcitrant gym class. Scott Ellsworth, New York Times, 29 May 1994
George and I were down in a trench hacking at one particularly recalcitrant oak carcass when a local farmer pulled up in his truck. P. J. O'Rourke, Republican Party Reptile, 1987
You are not the kind of person who beats on recalcitrant vending machines. Jay McInerney, Bright Lights, Big City, 1984
the manager worried that the recalcitrant employee would try to undermine his authority a heart-to-heart talk with the recalcitrant youth revealed that he had a troubled life at home See More
Recent Examples on the Web In a scene reminiscent of the Hispanophobia of late-19th-century progressives like Charles Goethe, the Spanish language is seen as machismo, a colonizing throwback, one that must be changed and reformed, regardless of whether the recalcitrant primitives agree. Joseph S. Laughon, National Review, 7 Sep. 2021 So last year Reynolds took matters into her own hands, supporting a half-dozen primary opponents of recalcitrant Republicans, including the chairman of the House’s education committee, Dustin Hite, who, along with others, lost to a more conservative candidate. Annie Gowen, Anchorage Daily News, 21 Mar. 2023 The same would be true in the rare cases when the wife is recalcitrant. Rabbi Avi Weiss, Sun Sentinel, 6 Sep. 2022 The touch switches for the heater and the air conditioner can be recalcitrant as well. Rich Ceppos, Car and Driver, 12 Apr. 2023 Old ideas, however, can be very recalcitrant. Quanta Magazine, 2 Aug. 2021 Interestingly, higher education is often accused (labeled or tagged) with being slow to action, resistant to change, even recalcitrant. David Rosowsky, Forbes, 1 Apr. 2023 President Biden says the only barrier to more U.S. oil production is recalcitrant drillers. The Editorial Board, WSJ, 1 Mar. 2023 Even some of the recalcitrant recruits were relieved to be finally under way. David Grann, The New Yorker, 28 Feb. 2023 See More

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

Word History


Late Latin recalcitrant-, recalcitrans, present participle of recalcitrare to be stubbornly disobedient, from Latin, to kick back, from re- + calcitrare to kick, from calc-, calx heel

First Known Use

1843, in the meaning defined at sense 1

Time Traveler
The first known use of recalcitrant was in 1843


Dictionary Entries Near recalcitrant

Cite this Entry

“Recalcitrant.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 2 Jun. 2023.

Kids Definition


re·​cal·​ci·​trant ri-ˈkal-sə-trənt How to pronounce recalcitrant (audio)
: stubbornly refusing to give in to authority

Medical Definition


re·​cal·​ci·​trant ri-ˈkal-sə-trənt How to pronounce recalcitrant (audio)
: not responsive to treatment
severe recalcitrant psoriasis
recalcitrant warts

More from Merriam-Webster on recalcitrant

Last Updated: - Updated example sentences
Love words? Need even more definitions?

Subscribe to America's largest dictionary and get thousands more definitions and advanced search—ad free!