: any of various chiefly marine birds (subfamily Sterninae of the family Laridae and especially genus Sterna) that differ from the related gulls in usually smaller size, a more slender build, a sharply pointed bill, narrower wings, and an often forked tail

Illustration of tern

Illustration of tern

Examples of tern in a Sentence

Recent Examples on the Web Its eVTOL, called Alia, is vaguely based on the skeleton of an Arctic tern, with a fishbowl cockpit. Gideon Lewis-Kraus, The New Yorker, 15 Apr. 2024 California least tern Head to Mission Bay for a chance to see the California least tern, the world’s second smallest tern at about 9 inches long. Maura Fox, San Diego Union-Tribune, 28 Feb. 2024 Elegant tern Those seeking more tern time can look for the elegant tern, a medium-sized bird that arrives in the county in late March and April from its winter home along the South American coast. Maura Fox, San Diego Union-Tribune, 28 Feb. 2024 By the way, black tern was number 124 on my Mecklenburg County Year List. Taylor Piephoff, Charlotte Observer, 31 Jan. 2024 Located within the San Diego Bay National Wildlife Refuge, the Salt Works temporarily closes during the terns’ nesting season. Maura Fox, San Diego Union-Tribune, 28 Feb. 2024 They are seasonally populated by such species as terns, sea lions and sea otters, among others. Susanne Rust, Los Angeles Times, 25 Feb. 2024 There are three other species of terns that may occur here through September: Caspian, Forster’s and common. Taylor Piephoff, Charlotte Observer, 31 Jan. 2024 That contrasted to 2022, when the disease killed more than 1,000 Caspian terns on two islands along the Door Peninsula in northeastern Wisconsin, according to Sumner Matteson of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. Journal Sentinel, 6 Jan. 2024

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

Word History


of Scandinavian origin; akin to Danish terne tern

First Known Use

1678, in the meaning defined above

Time Traveler
The first known use of tern was in 1678

Dictionary Entries Near tern

Cite this Entry

“Tern.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/tern. Accessed 18 May. 2024.

Kids Definition


: any of numerous sea birds that often have a forked tail, black cap, and white or gray body and that in comparison to the related gulls have a smaller and slenderer body and bill and narrower wings

More from Merriam-Webster on tern

Last Updated: - Updated example sentences
Love words? Need even more definitions?

Subscribe to America's largest dictionary and get thousands more definitions and advanced search—ad free!