adjective sur·ly \ ˈsər-lē \
|Updated on: 30 Jul 2018

Definition of surly

surlier; surliest
1 : menacing or threatening in appearance
  • surly weather
2 obsolete : arrogant, imperious
3 : irritably sullen and churlish in mood or manner : crabbed


play \ˈsər-lə-lē\ adverb


play \ˈsər-lē-nəs\ noun



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Examples of surly in a Sentence

  1. went about his chores in a surly huff, totally annoyed that he was stuck at home on this beautiful Saturday

  2. the surly receptionist told us we'd have to wait outside in the rain

Recent Examples of surly from the Web

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

Did You Know?

In its very earliest uses in the 16th century, surly meant "majestic" or "lordly." These early meanings make sense when you know that this word is an alteration of Middle English "serreli," which probably comes from "sire, ser," a title formerly used as a form of address for men of rank or authority. So how did a word with such lofty beginnings come to be associated with grumbling rudeness? Arrogant and domineering behavior is sometimes associated with men of rank or position, and "surly" came to mean "haughty" or "imperious." These meanings (which are now obsolete) led to the "rude" sense that is very common today.

Origin and Etymology of surly

alteration of Middle English serreli lordly, imperious, probably from sire, ser sire

Synonym Discussion of surly

sullen, glum, morose, surly, sulky, crabbed, saturnine, gloomy mean showing a forbidding or disagreeable mood. sullen implies a silent ill humor and a refusal to be sociable.
    • remained sullen amid the festivities
glum suggests a silent dispiritedness.
    • a glum candidate left to ponder a stunning defeat
morose adds to glum an element of bitterness or misanthropy.
    • morose job seekers who are inured to rejection
surly implies gruffness and sullenness of speech or manner.
    • a typical surly teenager
sulky suggests childish resentment expressed in peevish sullenness.
    • grew sulky after every spat
crabbed applies to a forbidding morose harshness of manner.
    • the school's notoriously crabbed headmaster
saturnine describes a heavy forbidding aspect or suggests a bitter disposition.
    • a saturnine cynic always finding fault
gloomy implies a depression in mood making for seeming sullenness or glumness.
    • a gloomy mood ushered in by bad news

SURLY Defined for English Language Learners


Definition of surly for English Language Learners

  • : rude and unfriendly

SURLY Defined for Kids


adjective sur·ly \ ˈsər-lē \

Definition of surly for Students

surlier; surliest
: mean and rude : unfriendly
  • a surly neighbor

History for surly

To a noble person it might seem natural to link together high birth and good manners, but the word surly is evidence that other people have not always thought this way. In Middle English the word was spelled sirly, which made more obvious its derivation from sir, the traditional title of respect. Sirly had much the same meaning as lordly does today, that is, “proud, haughty.” Although its meaning has evolved to “rude” or “unfriendly,” surly still refers to a way of acting that is quite the opposite of good-mannered.

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fullness to the point of excess

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