: 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

Example Sentences

Recent Examples on the Web The most notable birding highlights last week — despite the super heat and humidity — were a Mississippi kite in Provincetown, a black-necked stilt and a sandwich tern at Nantucket, and a loggerhead shrike in Orange. BostonGlobe.com, 23 July 2022 Other notable sightings featured a brown pelican noted at both First Encounter Beach in Eastham and Jeremy Point in Wellfleet, a royal tern at Wellfleet Bay Sanctuary, and a continuing clay-colored sparrow at the Crane Wildlife Area in Falmouth. BostonGlobe.com, 13 Aug. 2022 Observers also spotted a Sandwich tern in Westport. BostonGlobe.com, 2 July 2022 Worcester County: a little blue heron at the Sterling Peat in Sterling, four sandhill cranes in Hardwick, a Bonaparte’s gull and a Caspian tern at gate 40 at the Wachusett Reservoir in Clinton, five eastern meadowlarks at gate 36 in Sterling. BostonGlobe.com, 30 July 2022 Read full article Bristol County: a black tern at Gooseberry Neck in Westport. BostonGlobe.com, 30 July 2022 Nearby a Herring gull chick sought shelter under the shade of a dead tern. Paul A. Smith, Journal Sentinel, 1 July 2022 One adult tern on Gravel Island was observed in an incubating posture next to a nest and unable to move, said Sumner Matteson, avian ecologist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, of his June 2 visit to the site. Paul A. Smith, Journal Sentinel, 1 July 2022 An Arctic tern and 15 marsh wrens at Richmond Pond in Richmond, a Brewster’s warbler on Lower Valley Road in Washington, a golden-winged warbler near Woods Pond in Lenox, and 10 red crossbills in Washington. Maysoon Khan, BostonGlobe.com, 14 May 2022 See More

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

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 9 Dec. 2022.

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

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