Definition of cunning in English:

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Pronunciation: /ˈkʌnɪŋ/


1Having or showing skill in achieving one’s ends by deceit or evasion: a cunning look came into his eyes
More example sentences
  • The lies he fed me to achieve this were cunning and elaborate, and indeed, I was fooled.
  • First, it has to be said that the game scenario is a very cunning one, cleverly designed to lead the unsuspecting player astray.
  • What remains is a traditional case of a national paranoia being manipulated by a cunning business establishment to protect its entrenched interests.
crafty, wily, artful, guileful, devious, sly, knowing, scheming, designing, tricky, slippery, slick, manipulative, Machiavellian, deceitful, deceptive, duplicitous, Janus-faced;
shrewd, astute, clever, canny, sharp, sharp-witted, skilful, ingenious, resourceful, inventive, imaginative, deft, adroit, dexterous
informal foxy, savvy, fiendish, sneaky
British informal fly
Scottish & Northern English informal pawky
South African informal slim
archaic subtle
rare vulpine, carny
1.1Ingenious: plants have evolved cunning defences
More example sentences
  • Today's aggressor is cunning, ingenious, pragmatic, and at the same time not limited by any moral constraints.
  • He is a very ingenious and cunning writer and it's fun to see him skewer the targets he aims for with acerbic wit and intelligence.
  • John would see my brilliant tactical plan and organize a cunning defence…
2North American Attractive or quaint: Baby will look too cunning for anything in that pink print
More example sentences
  • She looked so cunning with her dark green cloak setting off her green eyes.


[mass noun]
1Skill in achieving one’s ends by deceit: a statesman to whom cunning had come as second nature
More example sentences
  • In fact, Houdini relied on great skill, low cunning, and keeping tiny metal picklocks concealed about his person.
  • The first embraces trickery and cunning, the second embraces manipulation and deception, with no lie being too great, no friendship not worth betraying.
  • But the longer the half wore on the sense a tad more craft, guile or cunning was needed to break through the formidable and sizeable Shrewsbury defence grew and grew.
guile, craftiness, wiliness, artfulness, deviousness, slyness, trickery, trickiness, duplicity, deceitfulness, deceit, chicanery;
shrewdness, astuteness, cleverness, canniness, sharpness, ingenuity, resourcefulness, inventiveness, imagination, deftness, adroitness, dexterity, dexterousness;
wiles, ploys, schemes, stratagems, tactics, manoeuvres, subterfuges, tricks, ruses
informal foxiness
1.1Ingenuity: what resources of energy and cunning it took just to survive
More example sentences
  • Here he personifies folk cunning, good humour and common sense.
  • And while the common law judges, with the prestige, wealth and cunning of the national government behind them, were ascendant forces, they had to tread rather softly.
  • The story is narrated by the chieftain's second son, widely regarded as an ‘idiot’ but possessing both wisdom and cunning.



Example sentences
  • It would take but a mere glimpse of cunningness.
  • He sources goals with a cunningness sharper than his tender years give a right to expect, but away from the field struggles to suppress the inner child as ably as he does on it.
  • She loathes cunningness, and thinks a cunning person is definitely dishonest.


Middle English: perhaps from Old Norse kunnandi 'knowledge', from kunna 'know' (related to can1), or perhaps from Middle English cunne, an obsolete variant of can1. The original sense was '(possessing) erudition or skill' and had no implication of deceit; the sense 'deceitfulness' dates from late Middle English.

  • If you described someone as cunning in the Middle Ages you meant they were skilful or learned—there was no implication of slyness or deceit. The word probably comes from Old Norse kunnandi ‘knowledge’, from kunna ‘to know’, which is related to the verb can (Old English). Witches and wizards used to be known as ‘cunning women’ and ‘cunning men’, from an old sense of the word ‘possessing magical knowledge or skill’.

For editors and proofreaders

Line breaks: cun|ning

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