Definition of cardinal in US English:



  • 1A leading dignitary of the Roman Catholic Church. Cardinals are nominated by the Pope, and form the Sacred College which elects succeeding popes (now invariably from among their own number).

    • ‘When a medieval pope died, elaborate ceremonies transferred his power to the cardinals who would elect the next pope.’
    • ‘History suggests that colleges of cardinals appointed by one pope do not elect a carbon copy as his successor.’
    • ‘Then, as now, the laity did not elect the cardinals or play even a limited role in their selection.’
    • ‘A Roman Catholic cardinal prominent in the Counter-Reformation, he was a celebrated spiritual director, and a theologian deeply concerned with the Incarnation.’
    • ‘Most modern conclaves have lasted only a few days, but if cardinals have failed to elect a Pope after about two weeks of balloting, they can opt for a simple majority.’
    • ‘Continuing in Latin, the cardinal said the new pope had taken the name Benedict XVI.’
    • ‘In 1378, a disagreement among the cardinals resulted in the election of two rival popes.’
    • ‘Probably the oldest College is that which meets in Rome to elect a new pope, consisting of the cardinals of the Church.’
    • ‘For example, the possibility of a North American cardinal being elected pope is just almost nil.’
    • ‘The cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church are sealed into the Sistine Chapel for a very secret ballot.’
    • ‘He is among the 117 cardinals who make up the conclave that will elect the next pope.’
    • ‘On his first full day as a cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church, an 82-year-old Jesuit priest was doing a little exploring.’
    • ‘White smoke above Rome signalled that the cardinals had elected a new Pope.’
    • ‘Were the differences among the American cardinals or between the Americans and curial officials?’
    • ‘Until 1059 Popes were elected not by cardinals but by the clergy and laity of the diocese of Rome.’
    • ‘Certainly the pope and the church's cardinals and bishops must correct the mistakes of the past.’
    • ‘Black smoke from the roof of the Sistine Chapel signalled that cardinals had failed to elect a new pope in the first ballot of their secret conclave yesterday.’
    • ‘In the weeks before the trip to Rome, I had tried but failed to arrange a meeting with the cardinal who headed the Pontifical Commission for Justice and Peace.’
    • ‘The result is that all but ten of the 135 electing cardinals were nominated by the man himself.’
    • ‘The Roman Catholic Church still awards episcopal rings to bishops, and papal rings to popes and cardinals.’
    1. 1.1 A deep scarlet color like that of a cardinal's cassock.
      • ‘Cardinal remained the school color until the 1940's.’
      • ‘Harmer sells a range of contemporary pendant lighting, including the Icon glass dome light shades, in colours from petrol blue to cardinal red, priced £109.’
      • ‘From a soft blush rose to cardinal to deep wine, red lipsticks put lips in the spotlight.’
      • ‘During the early 1980s a trend in new homes was to have a colour suite in either brown, green, cardinal red, etc.’
  • 2A New World songbird of the bunting family, with a stout bill and typically with a conspicuous crest. The male is partly or mostly red in color.

    Family Emberizidae, subfamily Cardinalinae (the cardinal grosbeak subfamily): four genera and several species, especially the northern (or common) cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis), the male of which is scarlet with a black face. This subfamily also includes American grosbeaks, buntings, and saltators

    • ‘I don't want to see more goldfinches, chickadees, herons or cardinals.’
    • ‘Butterflies, moths, hummingbirds, cardinals, bluejays and more visited our gardens.’
    • ‘As we were leaving, we stopped to admire the cardinals at the bird feeder by the visitor's center.’
    • ‘He went on, in his East Texas drawl, to tell me about his four feeders and eight male cardinals and the other visitors, including one he was especially proud of.’
    • ‘I guess this is a good time to spot young cardinals, so keep your eyes open.’
    • ‘It turns out that multiple paternity is very common, even among beloved backyard birds like the cardinal and robin.’
    • ‘As we had learned from those first brave chickadees, the cardinal, the robin family, and now the sparrow, communion with another life can change your perspective on the world.’
    • ‘Tube feeders come in many sizes and attract jays, cardinals, finches, chickadees, titmice and others.’
    • ‘Finches, grosbeaks, titmice, nuthatches, sparrows, and cardinals will beat a path to your door.’
    • ‘The rest of them, save the one single cardinal that keeps evading my lens, I'm not sure what they are.’
    • ‘I heard the peeping of a young, hungry cardinal, and I heard the soft cry of a nuthatch.’
    • ‘Birds such as goldfinches, orioles, and cardinals owe their colorful plumages to carotenoids.’
    • ‘Can you imagine that 50 years ago there were no cardinals in Massachusetts?’
    • ‘Mynah birds and cardinals serenade beach goers and picnickers alike.’
    • ‘Female cardinals also have crests, but their coloring is more subdued.’
    • ‘Use a feeder that holds sunflower seeds to draw cardinals, towhees and blue jays.’
    • ‘Hester and Fanny have filled our old bird feeder and have had so much fun watching the robins and the cardinals come and eat the seeds that they put inside.’
    • ‘Chickadees, cardinals, doves, and robins came and went, and a grackle made a racket in the woods.’
    • ‘We saw lots of catbirds, blackbirds, mockingbirds, cardinals, crows, and grackles.’
    • ‘Birds that overwinter in the northeastern U.S., like the red cardinal, are also the first to herald the onset of spring.’


  • attributive Of the greatest importance; fundamental.

    ‘two cardinal points must be borne in mind’
    • ‘He said that public support was cardinal in the successful implementation of the privatisation process, an issue that eluded the Zambian process when privatisation was initiated.’
    • ‘The need for a viable transport sector in any economy is cardinal.’
    • ‘Respect for the dead that used to be of cardinal importance in society is rarely noticeable during funeral ceremonies these days.’
    • ‘First, it is a profound betrayal of the cardinal principle of intellectual endeavour, which is freedom of speech and debate.’
    • ‘Firstly, it is cardinal to recognise that men have stood on a higher rung on the country's economic ladder ever since the country attained independence in 1964.’
    • ‘She said administrators were mandated to serve the public and it was cardinal that they developed sport to higher heights as it was not Government's responsibility to do that.’
    • ‘One of the cardinal principles John Hume held was that northern nationalists should not take sides in southern politics.’
    • ‘Hospital cleaning - although an issue of cardinal importance - is a subject to which only a proportion of the public relate.’
    • ‘He said discipline was cardinal, adding that civil servants should desist from activities like drinking beer during working hours and involving themselves in partisan politics.’
    • ‘She said Zambia had recognised that the full participation of women and men in the development process was cardinal to achieving sustainable development.’
    • ‘Now I live by certain cardinal rules one of which is other people will get you in trouble so don't listen to them.’
    • ‘And there are two cardinal rules: no pulling on the reins and no kicking in the sides.’
    • ‘Although the Ten Commandments are of cardinal importance, all the commandments were given by God and are essential to Judaism.’
    • ‘But at least they understood one cardinal fact of the modern world, as our educated liberals do not: that leniency for the criminal is punishment of the innocent.’
    • ‘From all of our experiences, three cardinal rules for young people seeking to work in the developing world seem to have emerged.’
    • ‘The value that will move Joe Customer to reach for his wallet lies in two cardinal rules: check the relevance, and work to keep Joe Customer's interest.’
    • ‘With different types of abuse affecting women and children, finding effective ways to protect them is cardinal to fighting violence against women and children.’
    • ‘He said camping was cardinal for athletes' preparations and that it would be an advantage if the budget was approved soon so that adequate preparations were effected.’
    • ‘Second, utilities, being cardinal, already incorporate attitudes to risk.’
    • ‘This I regard as being a point of cardinal importance in the present case.’
    fundamental, basic, main, chief, primary, prime, principal, premier, first, leading, capital, paramount, pre-eminent
    View synonyms


Old English, from Latin cardinalis, from cardo, cardin- ‘hinge’. cardinal (sense 1 of the noun) has arisen through the notion of the important function of such priests as ‘pivots’ of church life.