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 experiment G. 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 Funding reallocation alone, though, won’t make much of a difference without a shift in CBP’s infamously recalcitrant and suspicious outlook. Felipe De La Hoz, The New Republic, 21 Apr. 2022 Cheney detailed the more than 30 recalcitrant witnesses who invoked their rights against self-incrimination. Walter Shapiro, The New Republic, 13 Oct. 2022 This is problematic for reforming a health care industry that has been recalcitrant to publicly report its greenhouse gas emissions. David Introcaso, STAT, 1 Oct. 2022 All the while, California face a recalcitrant Trump administration, which seemed intent on letting states find their own way. Phil Willon, Los Angeles Times, 2 Sep. 2022 Thompson praised Hutchinson’s courage in speaking publicly and urged other recalcitrant witnesses to reconsider their earlier statements to the committee. Sarah D. Wire, Los Angeles Times, 28 June 2022 Waugh was a bit prickly, and got infuriated by little things — like recalcitrant salsa or dribbling Worcestershire. Pat Myers, Washington Post, 14 July 2022 The argument embedded in this passage, however—the importance of maintaining intellectual and analytic composure in the face of emotion, obscurantist belief, public pressure, and recalcitrant tradition—represents our magazine at its best. Jeffrey Goldberg, The Atlantic, 11 July 2022 Regan is an 18-year-old distance runner who hasn’t been able to run for three months thanks to a recalcitrant stress fracture. Alex Hutchinson, Outside Online, 2 July 2022 See More

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

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 5 Dec. 2022.

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

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