What It Means
: expressive of suffering or woe : melancholy
"Dean Nicholson was pedaling up a hill in Bosnia … when he heard a plaintive meow. He looked over his shoulder. In the lambent December light, he saw a gray-and-white kitten chasing him up the incline." — Isaac Stanley-Becker, The Philadelphia Inquirer, 4 Apr. 2019
"[Stevie] Wonder did perform a plaintive cover of the John Lennon classic 'Imagine' for his penultimate number—a statement piece that he's incorporated on his tours since the 1990s, and which he noted as being 'still relevant,' despite originally coming out in 1971." — Mara Reinstein, Billboard.com, 25 June 2019
Did You Know?
Like its relative plangent, plaintive is often used to describe sad sounds. "A plaintive wail," for example, is a common use. Plaintive and plangent (along with relatives plaintiff and complain) ultimately derive from the Latin verb plangere, meaning "to strike," "to beat one's breast," or "to lament." This Latin verb led to plaint, an Anglo-French word (and now also an English word) meaning "lamentation." Plaint is the root of Middle English plaintif (meaning "lamenting" or "complaining"), which gave rise to plaintive as well as the noun plaintiff.
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