The Meaning of Cardinal: What It Is and How To Use It

Do you know the definition of cardinal? This article will provide you with all of the information you need on the word cardinal, including its definition, etymology, usage, examples, and more!

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What does the word cardinal mean?

According to the Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language and other sources like American Heritage and Collins English Dictionary, the word cardinal can be used as a noun or an adjective. As a noun, this word refers to some high ecclesiastical official of the Roman Catholic Church. He ranks second in command below the pope and is appointed by the pope to assist him as a member of the college of cardinals. 

The word cardinal can also refer to the bird cardinalis cardinalis, which is a crested finch that comes from the eastern United States, Canada, the southwestern United States, Mexico, and Belize. The bird has a black face and heavy red bill in both sexes and is nearly completely red in the male. These birds were named for the deep red color of the robes worn by the priests to represent the blood of Christ. The male cardinal is almost completely red cardinals, but females can have more muted tones. This can also refer to the genus  Paroaria of the family Thraupidae, which refers to any of several red-headed passerine birds that are native to South America and the West Indies. They are grayish or blackish above with white underparts.

According to World Birds, in Native American mythology cardinals represent devotion, loving relationships, courtship, and monogamy. They are thought to be a messenger of good luck. 

Cardinal can also be used as an adjective to refer to something that is very important or something that is very serious or grave. You might hear this in the term cardinal rule. The word cardinal has three syllables – car-di-nal, and the pronunciation of cardinal is ˈkärd-nəl.

Many different languages aso contain words that mean cardinal. All of these words also describe an intense enthusiasm or revolutionary ardor for something. You may notice that some of these words look and sound similar to the word cardinal. These are called cognates. A cognate, which is a word that looks and sounds similar while retaining the same meaning across languages, is often formed when two words have the same root or language of origin such as Latin or Greek. This list of translations of cardinal is provided by Word Sense.

  •  Portuguese: cardeal‎, fundamental‎, principal‎
  •  Interlingua: cardinal‎
  •  Turkish: mühim‎, önemli‎
  •  Italian: cardinale‎
  •  Persian: کاردینال‎, عدداصلی‎, اعداد اصلی‎, اصلی‎, اساسی‎
  •  French: cardinal‎
  •  Finnish: perus-‎, pää-‎, emä-‎, peri-‎, kardinaali‎
  •  German: grundsätzlich‎
  •  Swedish: huvud-‎, huvudsaklig‎, främsta‎, kardinal-‎, avgörande‎, väsentlig‎
  •  Vietnamese: chính‎, chủ yếu‎, cốt yếu‎
  •  Russian: гла́вный‎, основно́й‎, кардина́льный‎
  •  Bulgarian: главен‎, основен‎
  •  Romanian: cardinal‎, fundamental‎
  •  Catalan: cardinal‎
  •  Swahili: kadinoli‎
  •  Polish: kardynalny‎ (masc.)
  •  Irish: cairdinéalta‎
  •  Spanish: cardinal‎
  •  Icelandic: höfuð-‎, aðal-‎, megin-‎, grundvallar-‎ (prefix in a compound word)
  •  Japanese: 基本‎ (kihon)
  •  Breton: pennañ‎

What is the origin of the word cardinal?

According to Etymonline, the word cardinal has been used since the early 12c to refer to a person of the ecclesiastical princes who constitute the sacred college. This comes from the Medieval Latin cardinalis which was originally used as a noun to refer to one of the presbyters of the chief, or cardinal, churches of Rome. This was short for cardinalis ecclesiae Romanae or episcopus cardinalis. The name for the North American songbird Cardinalis virginianus has been attested since the 1670s and is named for the fact that it resembles the red robes of the cardinals.

The word cardinal had been used as an adjective since the early 14c. This comes from the Latin cardinalis meaning chief or essential. This is a figurative use and it literally means pertaining to a hinge. This comes from the Latin cardo, the genitive cardinis, which means that on which something turns or depends. One can add the suffix ly to al to make the related words cardinally (adv.) or ity to make cardinality (n.). The cardinal numbers have existed since the 1590s, the cardinal points since the 1540s, the cardinal sins since 1600, the cardinal virtues since 1300, cardinal winds since late 14c, and cardinal signs in the astrological zodiac since late 14c, which are libra, aries, and capricorn. The cardinal angels are Gabriel, Uriel, Raphael, and Michael.

What are synonyms and antonyms for the word cardinal?

There are a plethora of different words that someone can use in place of the word cardinal. These words which have the same definition as the word cardinal are called synonyms. Synonyms are a great way to expand your vocabulary and an easy way to avoid repeating yourself in speech or written work. This list of synonyms for the word cardinal is provided by Thesaurus.

  •  foremost
  •  first
  •  important
  •  leading
  •  prime
  •  central
  •  fundamental
  •  preeminent
  •  basic
  •  basal
  •  ruling
  •  paramount
  •  overruling
  •  key
  •  primary
  •  overriding
  •  main
  •  vital
  •  principal
  •  chief
  •  pivotal
  •  indispensable
  •  greatest
  •  highest
  •  constitutive
  •  essential

There are also many different words that mean the opposite of the word cardinal. These opposite words are called antonyms. Learning antonyms for different words is also a great way to expand your English language vocabulary. This list of antonyms for the word cardinal is also provided by Thesaurus.  

  •  zip
  •  trivial
  •  worthless
  •  insignificant
  •  minute
  •  irrelevant
  •  beside the point
  •  null
  •  zero
  •  picayune
  •  unnecessary
  •  zilch
  •  shoestring
  •  casual
  •  of no account
  •  little
  •  petty
  •  immaterial
  •  negligible
  •  frivolous
  •  of no consequence
  •  useless
  •  nugatory
  •  meaningless
  •  nonessential
  •  trifling
  •  nothing
  •  slight
  •  indifferent
  •  unimportant
  •  inconsiderable
  •  low-ranking
  •  minor
  •  second-rate
  •  paltry
  •  inconsequential
  •  frothy

Overall, the word cardinal can refer to a specific type of priest in the Catholic church, a bird named after such priests, or it can be used as an adjective to describe something that is very important or grave. 


  1. CARDINAL Synonyms: 42 Synonyms & Antonyms for CARDINAL | Thesaurus 
  2. cardinal: meaning, origin, translation | Word Sense
  3. UNIMPORTANT Synonyms: 49 Synonyms & Antonyms for UNIMPORTANT | Thesaurus  
  4. cardinal | Origin and meaning of cardinal | Online Etymology Dictionary  
  5. Cardinal | Definition of Cardinal | Merriam-Webster
  6. Cardinal Symbolism & Meaning (+Totem, Spirit & Omens) | World Birds