cardinal

1 of 2

noun

car·​di·​nal ˈkärd-nəl How to pronounce cardinal (audio)
ˈkär-də-
plural cardinals
1
: a high ecclesiastical official of the Roman Catholic Church who ranks next below the pope and is appointed by him to assist him as a member of the college of cardinals (see college sense 4)
2
: cardinal number
usually used in plural
3
a
[from its color, resembling that of the cardinal's robes] : a crested finch (Cardinalis cardinalis of the family Cardinalidae) of the eastern U.S. and adjacent Canada, the southwestern U.S., and Mexico to Belize which has a black face and heavy red bill in both sexes and is nearly completely red in the male
b
: any of several red-headed passerine birds (genus Paroaria of the family Thraupidae) of South America and the West Indies that are grayish to blackish above with white underparts
cardinalship
ˈkärd-nəl-ˌship How to pronounce cardinal (audio)
ˈkär-də-
noun

Illustration of cardinal

Illustration of cardinal
  • cardinal 3

cardinal

2 of 2

adjective

1
: of basic importance
a cardinal principle
2
: very serious or grave
a cardinal sin
cardinally adverb

Did you know?

Mathematics, religion, ornithology—everything seems to hinge on cardinal. As a noun, cardinal has important uses in all three of the aforementioned realms of human inquiry; as an adjective cardinal describes things of basic or main importance, suggesting that outcomes turn or depend on them. Both adjective and noun trace back to the Latin adjective cardinalis, meaning “serving as a hinge,” and further to the noun cardo, meaning “hinge.” Since the 12th century, cardinal has been used as a noun referring to a fundamentally important clergyman of the Roman Catholic Church, ranking only below the pope. (The clergyman's red robes gave the familiar North American songbird its name.) By the 1300s cardinal was also being used as the adjective we know today, to describe abstract things such as principles or rules (as opposed to, say, red wheelbarrows) upon which so much depends.

Choose the Right Synonym for cardinal

essential, fundamental, vital, cardinal mean so important as to be indispensable.

essential implies belonging to the very nature of a thing and therefore being incapable of removal without destroying the thing itself or its character.

conflict is essential in drama

fundamental applies to something that is a foundation without which an entire system or complex whole would collapse.

fundamental principles of algebra

vital suggests something that is necessary to a thing's continued existence or operation.

cut off from vital supplies

cardinal suggests something on which an outcome turns or depends.

a cardinal rule in buying a home

Examples of cardinal in a Sentence

Noun The Pope appointed two new cardinals this year. Adjective the cardinal principles of news reporting My cardinal rule is to always be honest.
Recent Examples on the Web
Noun
The northern cardinal, a classic red bird, has pigment in its feathers that absorbs all but the red wavelengths, which are then reflected to us. Karina Zaiets, USA TODAY, 27 Apr. 2024 In addition to cardinals, jays, blackbirds, and titmice gravitate toward a hopper-style feeder. Amy Wilkinson, SELF, 14 June 2024
Adjective
Anyone who has lived or worked in New York City knows the cardinal rule when riding the subway: Do not make eye contact. Orianna Rosa Royle, Fortune, 21 June 2024 This gets at two cardinal rules of what to wear when kayaking: Always dress according to the water temperature and not the air temperature, and always be prepared for a swim. Dac Collins, Outdoor Life, 12 June 2024 See all Example Sentences for cardinal 

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

Word History

Etymology

Noun

Middle English, from Anglo-French, from Medieval Latin cardinalis, from Late Latin cardinalis, adjective — see cardinal entry 2

Adjective

Middle English, from Late Latin cardinalis, from Latin, serving as a hinge, from cardin-, cardo hinge

First Known Use

Noun

before the 12th century, in the meaning defined at sense 1

Adjective

14th century, in the meaning defined at sense 1

Time Traveler
The first known use of cardinal was before the 12th century

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Dictionary Entries Near cardinal

Cite this Entry

“Cardinal.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/cardinal. Accessed 13 Jul. 2024.

Kids Definition

cardinal

1 of 2 noun
car·​di·​nal ˈkärd-nəl How to pronounce cardinal (audio)
-ᵊn-əl
1
: a high official of the Roman Catholic Church ranking next below the pope
2
3
: a North American finch of which the male is bright red with a black face and a pointed bunch of feathers on its head

cardinal

2 of 2 adjective
1
: chief entry 1 sense 2, primary
a cardinal rule
2
: very serious
a cardinal sin
Etymology

Noun

Middle English cardinal "high church official," from Latin cardinalis (same meaning), from cardinalis (adjective) "principal, most important, of a hinge," from cardo "hinge"

Word Origin
Our word cardinal can be traced back to the Latin adjective cardinalis, which at first meant "serving as a hinge." The root of this word is the noun cardo, meaning "hinge." Since a hinge is the device on which a door turns, the noun cardo also came to be used for "something on which a development turns or depends," or in other words, "something very important." Following this, the adjective took on the meaning "very important, chief, principal." Later the Roman Catholic Church applied this adjective in referring to principal churches and priests. By the late Middle Ages cardinalis had come to be used for "a clergyman of the highest rank, next to the pope." When borrowed into English, cardinalis became cardinal. Then other senses of the word developed. A cardinal's robes are a deep red color, and this color influenced the naming of a type of bird whose color was like that of a cardinal's robes.

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