plain·​tive ˈplān-tiv How to pronounce plaintive (audio)
: expressive of suffering or woe : melancholy
a plaintive sigh
plaintively adverb
plaintiveness noun

Did you know?

“The people are drifting from door to door / Can’t find no heaven I don’t care where they go.” So sang Nehemiah Curtis “Skip” James on a Depression-era recording of his song “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues.” James’s somber lyrics as well as his otherworldly falsetto and distinctive minor-key fingerpicking may be aptly described by the adjective plaintive—deeply expressive, like much of the blues. Plaintive comes from the Middle English word plaintif, meaning “grieving,” a borrowing from an identical Anglo-French word that itself was formed from the Anglo-French noun plaint, a word meaning “lamentation.” (Plaint was also adopted directly into English to refer to expressions of sorrow, mourning, or regret.) Plaintif is the source too of the familiar legal term plaintiff, which refers to someone who presents a legal action or complaint to a court. But while only some people become plaintiffs, all are capable of plaintiveness, whether in song or just a world-weary sigh.

Examples of plaintive in a Sentence

We could hear the plaintive cry of a wounded animal in the woods. the puppy's plaintive expression after we put the toy away was rather amusing
Recent Examples on the Web Hayao Miyazaki’s film cuts abruptly to a parade of tanks rolling down the street, and the piano enters, plaintive, mournful, and almost welcoming. Vulture, 24 Jan. 2024 Though it is not sung out loud, the lyrics appear on the screen as the plaintive melody is played, and Wulf’s own voice (recorded in the late 1960s) introduces it. Andrew Lapin, Sun Sentinel, 3 Jan. 2024 There is a distinction between a plaintive warning and a scalding and sanctimonious reprimand issued from a distance. Andrew T. Walker, National Review, 31 Dec. 2023 They may not have been considered a textbook shoegaze act in their time—their creeping tempos and plaintive harmonies had more in common with slowcore—but in 2023, even their label tags them as shoegaze on TikTok. Philip Sherburne, Pitchfork, 14 Dec. 2023 Elsewhere in the concert, their contributions on violin were alternatingly exuberant or plaintive. Christian Hertzog, San Diego Union-Tribune, 13 Nov. 2023 Then the vocals disintegrate into a more plaintive falsetto. Ej Dickson, Rolling Stone, 13 Nov. 2023 The singer’s plaintive vocals, set at first against a simple backdrop of harmonica and strings, build to a soaring guitar solo. Vivian Wang, New York Times, 13 Aug. 2023 That plaintive statement appears at the end of testimony Mr. Bankman-Fried had hoped to give Congress last winter before his arrest scuttled his plans. David Streitfeld, New York Times, 3 Nov. 2023 See More

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

Word History


Middle English plaintif grieving, from Anglo-French pleintif, plaintif, from plaint

First Known Use

circa 1570, in the meaning defined above

Time Traveler
The first known use of plaintive was circa 1570


Dictionary Entries Near plaintive

Cite this Entry

“Plaintive.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 24 Feb. 2024.

Kids Definition


plain·​tive ˈplānt-iv How to pronounce plaintive (audio)
: showing or expressing sorrow : mournful, sad
a plaintive sigh
plaintively adverb
plaintiveness noun

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