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

Examples of surly in a Sentence

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 From surly agents to invasive pat downs, the TSA is not known for customer service or efficiency. Judge Glock, National Review, 21 Mar. 2024 Tommy wants McGregor to find out where their John Doe got a kidney, but the surly detective is not interested in using his limited resources to track him down. Patrick Gomez,, 1 May 2023 There are bright spots: Bill Camp introduces a welcome note of surly realism even at the height of the film’s most mannered lunacy, and a third-act cameo arrives just in time to almost save the day. Ann Hornaday, Washington Post, 21 Feb. 2024 Now that's a loyal underling! 03 Hugh Laurie, House, M.D. Nominations: 6 Seasons: 8 Hugh Laurie’s talented Dr. Gregory House was surly and smart, the antithesis to the Dr. McNiceys that typically make the rounds of TV medical dramas. Nancy Mattia, Peoplemag, 16 Jan. 2024 Bill Belichick, the surly mastermind of the greatest dynasty in NFL history, is out as head coach of the New England Patriots after 24 seasons that featured nine Super Bowl appearances and six championships, people familiar with the matter said. Andrew Beaton, WSJ, 11 Jan. 2024 Set during a perpetually dark and snowy December in a remote Alaska town where Indigenous locals are clashing with a mining company, the season centers on two surly detectives attempting to unravel why a team of scientists have vanished from a research outpost. Lisa Wong MacAbasco, Vogue, 11 Jan. 2024 Perhaps irony, like water for the swimming pool, is a resource that dries up seasonally in these parts, leaving only a dust bowl of surly resentment and some tatty deckchairs behind. Jessica Kiang, Los Angeles Times, 6 Oct. 2023 Jacob Yeh is particularly hilarious as a swaggering gangster named Shrimp Boy, and Sylvia Kwan ably channels oddballs such as a surly liquor store owner. Celia Wren, Washington Post, 25 Sep. 2023

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

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 19 Apr. 2024.

Kids Definition


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

Middle English serreli "lordly, imperious," from sir "a man of rank"

Word Origin
The word surly, which describes someone with a very bad temper, was at one time spelled sirly. It comes from the familiar word sir, which has been used for centuries as a title of respect for a gentleman or nobleman. Sirly was originally used to describe a person who behaves in a very proud way—the kind of person who might insist on being called "sir." It was similar in meaning to the word lordly. Many years of use brought about the changes in spelling and in meaning that have given us the modern word surly.

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