re·​cal·​ci·​trant ri-ˈkal-sə-trənt How to pronounce recalcitrant (audio)
: obstinately defiant of authority or restraint
: difficult to manage or operate
: not responsive to treatment
: resistant
this subject is recalcitrant both to observation and to experimentG. G. Simpson
recalcitrant noun

Did you know?

Long before any human was dubbed "recalcitrant" in English (that first occurred in the 18th century), there were stubborn mules (and horses) kicking back their heels. The ancient Romans noted as much (Pliny the Elder among them), and they had a word for it: recalcitrare, which literally means "to kick back." (Its root calc-, meaning "heel," is also the root of calcaneus, the large bone of the heel in humans.) Certainly Roman citizens in Pliny's time were sometimes willful and hardheaded—as attested by various Latin words meaning "stubborn"—but it wasn't until later that writers of Late Latin applied recalcitrare and its derivative adjective to humans who were stubborn as mules.

Choose the Right Synonym for recalcitrant

unruly, ungovernable, intractable, refractory, recalcitrant, willful, headstrong mean not submissive to government or control.

unruly implies lack of discipline or incapacity for discipline and often connotes waywardness or turbulence of behavior.

unruly children

ungovernable implies either an escape from control or guidance or a state of being unsubdued and incapable of controlling oneself or being controlled by others.

ungovernable rage

intractable suggests stubborn resistance to guidance or control.

intractable opponents of the hazardous-waste dump

refractory stresses resistance to attempts to manage or to mold.

special schools for refractory children

recalcitrant suggests determined resistance to or defiance of authority.

acts of sabotage by a recalcitrant populace

willful implies an obstinate determination to have one's own way.

a willful disregard for the rights of others

headstrong suggests self-will impatient of restraint, advice, or suggestion.

a headstrong young cavalry officer

Example Sentences

But Smith managed to rally and to learn, through trial and error, how to milk what he needed out of an often recalcitrant medical system. Gina Kolata, New York Times Book Review, 7 Sept. 1997
For anyone who has ever struggled to extract a recalcitrant cork from a bottle … the value of a good corkscrew is a given. Ettagale Blauer, Wine Spectator, 31 Oct. 1996
In November 1891, James Naismith, a 32-year-old Canadian-born instructor at the International Y.M.C.A. Training School in Springfield, was asked to invent an indoor game to help tame the members of a recalcitrant gym class. Scott Ellsworth, New York Times, 29 May 1994
George and I were down in a trench hacking at one particularly recalcitrant oak carcass when a local farmer pulled up in his truck. P. J. O'Rourke, Republican Party Reptile, 1987
You are not the kind of person who beats on recalcitrant vending machines. Jay McInerney, Bright Lights, Big City, 1984
the manager worried that the recalcitrant employee would try to undermine his authority a heart-to-heart talk with the recalcitrant youth revealed that he had a troubled life at home See More
Recent Examples on the Web For many years, embittered American veterans and recalcitrant anti-Communists in Congress opposed any hint of reconciliation with Vietnam. George Black, The New Republic, 19 Dec. 2022 The silence is often deafening as interviewer Henri Renaud unsuccessfully tries to solicit small talk and vocal filler from a recalcitrant Monk, who was staying in the French capital during a European tour. Thinus Ferreira, Variety, 2 Feb. 2023 When Mahomes returned to the sideline after that possession, the team’s training staff employed all its power of persuasion to get the recalcitrant quarterback to the locker room for a better look at his injury. Joe Drape, New York Times, 21 Jan. 2023 But a recalcitrant group of conservative lawmakers steadfastly opposed him, forcing the first contest for speaker with multiple votes in a century. Grace Segers, The New Republic, 3 Jan. 2023 Klara tracks him down and annoys him to no end, and the wooing of the recalcitrant detective by the scheming, charming TV producer is what the show is really about, murder—which occurs with some frequency—being an accessory. John Anderson, WSJ, 29 Nov. 2022 Whereas many Sardinian winemakers appear recalcitrant to respond to email or phone calls (in any language), Mario and his family always welcome any curious passerby. Tom Mullen, Forbes, 24 July 2022 There’s shared alarm over the recalcitrant country’s nuclear program. Noah Bierman, Los Angeles Times, 13 July 2022 Some clients this season, like a sweet but recalcitrant 8-year-old LOL-doll collector, hold on to every last pink plastic shoe. Hillary Kelly, Curbed, 1 Apr. 2022 See More

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

Word History


Late Latin recalcitrant-, recalcitrans, present participle of recalcitrare to be stubbornly disobedient, from Latin, to kick back, from re- + calcitrare to kick, from calc-, calx heel

First Known Use

1843, in the meaning defined at sense 1

Time Traveler
The first known use of recalcitrant was in 1843


Dictionary Entries Near recalcitrant

Cite this Entry

“Recalcitrant.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 24 Mar. 2023.

Kids Definition


re·​cal·​ci·​trant ri-ˈkal-sə-trənt How to pronounce recalcitrant (audio)
: stubbornly refusing to give in to authority

Medical Definition


re·​cal·​ci·​trant ri-ˈkal-sə-trənt How to pronounce recalcitrant (audio)
: not responsive to treatment
severe recalcitrant psoriasis
recalcitrant warts

More from Merriam-Webster on recalcitrant

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