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Etymology 1[edit]

un- (prefix meaning ‘not) +‎ gainly (graceful; becoming; proper, suitable; gracious, kindly) (from gain (dexterous; convenient, easy, handy; suitable), from Old Norse gegn (fit, serviceable; direct, straight; honest; kindly) + -ly (suffix forming adjectives from nouns)). Compare dialectal Norwegian Nynorsk ugjegnleg (stubborn; troublesome).


ungainly (comparative ungainlier or more ungainly, superlative ungainliest or most ungainly)

  1. Clumsy; lacking grace.
    • 1700, Christopher Fryke, Christopher Schewitzer, “chapter VII”, in S. L., transl., A Relation of Two Several Voyages Made into the East-Indies, by Christopher Fryke, Surg. and Christopher Schewitzer. The Whole Containing an Exact Account of the Customs, Dispositions, Manners, Religion, &c. of the Several Kingdoms and Dominions in those Parts of the World in General: But in a More Particular Manner, Describing those Countries which are under the Power and Government of the Dutch, London: [Printed for] D. Brown, S. Crouch, J. Knapton, R. Knaplock, J. Wyate, B. Took, and S. Buckley, →OCLC, pages 100–101:
      They being a very ſilly ſort of People, had no other way to ſhew their Spight and Reſentment, than by making Mouths at the Dutch as they paſſed by, and ſometimes Spitting upon them. To break them of that ungainly Cuſtom, we made a reſolution amongſt us, never to let any paſs by that did ſo, whether Old or Young, Man or Woman, without giving them a good Box on the Ear.
    • 1857 March, Thomas Babington Macaulay, “Samuel Johnson”, in Harper's New Monthly Magazine, volume XIV, number LXXXII, New York, N.Y.: Harper & Brothers, publishers, 327 to 335 Pearl Street, Franklin Square, →OCLC, page 484, column 2:
      When the young scholar [Samuel Johnson] presented himself to the rulers of that society, they were amazed not more by his ungainly figure and eccentric manners than by the quantity of extensive and curious information which he had picked up during many months of desultory, but not unprofitable study.
    • 1867 April 20, “Mrs. Scott Siddons in Rosalind and Juliet”, in The Spectator. A Weekly Review of Politics, Literature, Theology, and Art, volume XL, number 2025, London: John Campbell, 1 Wellington Street, Strand, →ISSN, →OCLC, page 439, column 1:
      There is but little tenderness in her manner to Celia, who is played by Miss Ione Bourke with very great simplicity and taste, though she has the disadvantage of being taller and in every way ungainlier than Rosalind, which is just the reverse of Shakespeare's intention.
    • 1873 April, “Byzantine Anatolia”, in The Cornhill Magazine, volume XXVII, number 160, London: Smith, Elder & Co., 15 Waterloo Place, →OCLC, page 411:
      [A] string of huge woolly camels, most powerful and ungainliest of their kind, swaying along beneath their loads as they thrust out their shaggy snaky necks in an aimless fashion from side to side, and frightening our nags in a desperate scramble to get out of the way up the mountain slope; []
    • 1944 November and December, Talisman, “A Broadening Horizon”, in Railway Magazine, page 339:
      Photographs of the Fowler Moguls had always given me the impression of an ungainly design: the sight of them more then confirmed it.
    • 1962, Edward [Ronald] Weismiller, chapter XI, in The Serpent Sleeping, New York, N.Y.: Putnam, →OCLC; republished London; Portland, Or.: Frank Cass Publishers, 1998, →ISBN, page 169:
      His body, though thin, looked oversized and ungainly, his limbs poorly knit together; he appeared to conquer his tendency to awkwardness by making only the smallest, most deliberate of movements.
  2. Difficult to move or to manage; unwieldy.
    • 1896, Emily Malbone Morgan, A Lady of the Olden Time, Hartford, Conn.: Belknap and Warfield, →OCLC, page 42:
      My lady brought with her from England a most profane instrument, a lute of ungainlie height, at which Master Higginson looketh doubtfully as if it were an instrument of sin, and methinketh Mistresses Mary and Elizabeth Fenwick thinketh it also []
  3. (obsolete) Unsuitable; unprofitable.
    • 1850, Henry Hammond, John Fell, “Sermon XXV. Acts xvii. 30. And the times of this ignorance God winked at, but now commandeth all men every where to repent.”, in The Miscellaneous Theological Works of Henry Hammond, D.D., Archdeacon of Chichester and Canon of Christ Church. To which is Prefixed, the Life of the Author, by John Fell, D.D., Dean of Ch[rist] Ch[urch], and Lord Bishop of Oxford, 3rd edition, volume III (Thirty-one Sermons Preached on Several Occasions), Oxford: John Henry Parker, →OCLC, pages 540–541:
      And this is the excellency and perfection of a Christian, infinitely above the reach of the proudest moralists; this is the repentance of a Christian, whereby he makes up those defects which were most eminently notorious in the heathen; this is the impression of the humbling spirit, which proud heathen nature was never stamped with, for it was not so much their ignorance in which they offended God,—though that was also full of guilt, as hath been proved,—as their misusing of their knowledge to ungainly ends, as either ambition, superstition, or for satisfying their curiosity, as partly hath, and for the present needs not further to be demonstrated.
    • 1897, John Aubrey Clark, Selected Verses and Essays, London: Printed for private circulation by Headley Brothers, →OCLC, page 86:
      For as she could not, alas, select / Twixt ye goodlie and ungainlie, / Why of course 'twas Actions must direct / Her goode opinion,—mainlie.
Alternative forms[edit]
Derived terms[edit]


ungainly (plural ungainlies)

  1. (rare) An ungainly person or thing.
    • 1854, Henry W[hitelock] Torrens, “My Old Gun Screw. [Screw No. 4.]”, in James Hume, compiler, A Selection from the Writings, Prose and Poetical, of the Late Henry W. Torrens, Esq., B.A., Bengal Civil Service, and of the Inner Temple; with a Biographical Memoir, volume II, Calcutta: R. C. Lepage and Co., British Library; London: R. C. Lepage and Co., Whitefriars St., Fleet Street, →OCLC, page 151:
      I was completely subdued:—hungry, cold, wet, and chilled, outside and inside, with the weather, and the place, and the people,—but that's a bull, for I saw nobody except two ungainly country footmen, and a fat groom of the chambers who took me to my room, and assigned me one of the ungainlies as valet.
    • 1966, Stephen Dunning, Teaching Literature to Adolescents: Poetry, Glenview, Ill.: Scott, Foresman and Company, →OCLC, page 32:
      Long lists resulting from the listing technique will often become short poems after you and the student writer's classmates help cull out the unnecessaries, the ungainlies, and the unworthies.
    • 1987, Anne McCaffrey, The Lady, New York, N.Y.: Ballantine Books, →ISBN:
      She'd never ridden him so fast, and the elation she felt was breathtaking. He was also lapping half the other horses; only the gray was ahead of him. One of the ungainlies came off, and there was a pile-up of horses in one corner, but she, the gray, and the brown mare avoided it neatly.

Etymology 2[edit]

ungain (from un- + gain (dexterous; convenient, easy, handy; suitable)) +‎ -ly.


ungainly (comparative ungainlier or more ungainly, superlative ungainliest or most ungainly)

  1. (obsolete) In an ungainly or unbecoming manner; improperly; undeservedly, unduly; unsuitably.