spe·​lunk·​er | \ spi-ˈləŋ-kər How to pronounce spelunker (audio) , ˈspē-ˌləŋ- \

Definition of spelunker

: one who makes a hobby of exploring and studying caves

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Did You Know?

Spelunker sounds like the noise a pebble makes when you drop it down a deep hole and into dark, hidden water far below. But there's nothing dark or obscure about the etymology of the term. We borrowed "spelunker" from Latin spelunca, which in turn derives from Greek spelynx. When you get to the bottom of things, you find that both the Latin and Greek words mean "cave." Although "spelunker" might sound neat, be careful: some cave-exploring enthusiasts prefer the term "caver."

Examples of spelunker in a Sentence

Recent Examples on the Web Deep in the bowels of a cave system on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, in a dim chamber accessible only to the most intrepid of spelunkers, lies a red-tinted painting depicting what appears to be a vivid hunt or ritual. Katherine J. Wu, Smithsonian, "Newly Discovered Indonesian Cave Art May Represent World’s Oldest Known Hunting Scene," 12 Dec. 2019 The caves that comprise Kartchner Caverns State Park were discovered by spelunkers Gary Tenen and Randy Tufts in 1974. Weldon B. Johnson, azcentral, "Kartchner Caverns is celebrating 20 years. Here's how you can get in free," 13 Nov. 2019 An amnesiac spelunker joins a rescue team to explore underground caves where bloodthirsty creatures dwell. Los Angeles Times, "Movies on TV for Oct. 6-12: ‘Throne of Blood’ and more," 4 Oct. 2019 In another rescue operation in the Tatra Mountains, TOPR emergency workers have been searching for two spelunkers who went missing in a cave on Saturday after being trapped by rising water. Washington Post, "Lightning strikes kill 5, injure over 100 in Tatra Mountains," 23 Aug. 2019 One other bit of Apple news: ace software spelunker Steve Troughton-Smith found code in iOS 13 referencing a headset for running augmented reality apps. Adam Lashinsky, Fortune, "Apple Making the World Safe for ‘Slofies’—Data Sheet," 11 Sep. 2019 This historic national landmark offers day and overnight tours for spelunkers (both novice and experienced) to explore the cave’s 32 miles of stalagmites, stalactites, and other unique features. National Geographic, "Take an epic road trip to Tennessee’s coolest caverns," 16 Aug. 2019 British spelunkers started surveying the region in 1990 and discovered the largest known cave passage in the world, Son Doong, in 2009. Patrick Scott, WSJ, "A Blow-Your-Mind Adventure in Vietnam’s Caves," 13 Nov. 2018 From the entrance, a path leads about two miles into the cave complex before splitting into two directions, said Vernon Unsworth, a British spelunker who lives in Chiang Rai and has been exploring Tham Luang for more than six years. New York Times, "As Search for Thai Boys Lost in Cave Hits Day 5, a Nation Holds Its Breath," 27 June 2018

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

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First Known Use of spelunker

1942, in the meaning defined above

History and Etymology for spelunker

Latin spēlunca "cave" (borrowed from Greek spēlynk-, stem of spêlynx "cave") + -er entry 2 — more at speleology

Note: Word popularized, if not coined, by the author and outdoorsman Clair Willard Perry ("Clay Perry," 1887-1961), perhaps earliest in Underground New England (Brattleboro, VT: Stephen Daye Press, 1939), p. 219: "There is an informal caveman's club in New England, a group of men and boys who for several years have been making a more or less systematic study of the caves and old mines of the country, extending their research throughout eastern New York state as well. They call themselves 'spelunkers,' taking the name from the snappy Latin title for a cave, 'spelunka,' and from the high-sounding British caveman's club which is 'British Speleological Association'."

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The first known use of spelunker was in 1942

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Last Updated

21 Dec 2019

Cite this Entry

“Spelunker.” The Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Inc., https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/spelunker. Accessed 21 January 2020.

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How to pronounce spelunker (audio)

English Language Learners Definition of spelunker

US : a person who explores and studies caves as a hobby

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