sur·​ly ˈsər-lē How to pronounce surly (audio)
surlier; surliest
: menacing or threatening in appearance
surly weather
obsolete : arrogant, imperious
: irritably sullen and churlish in mood or manner : crabbed
surlily adverb
surliness noun
surly adverb

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.

Choose the Right Synonym for 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

Example Sentences

went about his chores in a surly huff, totally annoyed that he was stuck at home on this beautiful Saturday the surly receptionist told us we'd have to wait outside in the rain
Recent Examples on the Web And three times, the flight attendant seated surly passengers, sorted overhead bins and absorbed the simmering — sometimes volatile — frustration of more than 70 travelers. Petula Dvorak, Washington Post, 12 Jan. 2023 The airspace above the capital is a no-fly zone, off-limits to anyone desirous of slipping the surly bonds of Earth and gazing down at what, quite frankly, is a pretty handsome town. John Kelly, Washington Post, 31 Dec. 2022 Hard on the brain, to design ways to slip the surly bonds of Earth in the first place, but also hard on the body, which needs to withstand conditions it was never designed for. Bill Andrews, Discover Magazine, 11 Apr. 2019 They’re usually destined to end abruptly due to excessive-noise complaints, frequent visits from surly cops and angry landlords. Los Angeles Times, 30 Nov. 2022 Wednesday's style has stayed remarkably consistent from the original TV show: Two pigtail braids, a high-necked collar, and a surly vibe. Emily Burack, Town & Country, 10 Dec. 2022 After Colin's shocking death in the season 3 finale, he was reborn as an infant, and Proksch plays him at every age, rapidly growing from wobbly toddler to tap-dancing tween to surly teenager. Ew Staff,, 8 Dec. 2022 Another is a grungy young man named Lee (Timothée Chalamet), a surly store clerk with streaky red dye in his hair and gigantic rips in his pants. David Sims, The Atlantic, 30 Nov. 2022 They’re usually destined to end abruptly due to excessive noise complaints, frequent visits from surly cops and angry landlords — not to mention the fear of spreading COVID-19. Jake Kroeger, Los Angeles Times, 29 Nov. 2022 See More

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.

Word History


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

First Known Use

1523, in the meaning defined at sense 1

Time Traveler
The first known use of surly was in 1523


Dictionary Entries Near surly

Cite this Entry

“Surly.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 27 Jan. 2023.

Kids Definition


sur·​ly ˈsər-lē How to pronounce surly (audio)
surlier; surliest
: having a rude unfriendly disposition
surliness noun

More from Merriam-Webster on surly

Last Updated: - Updated example sentences
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