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of prime importance; chief; principal:
of cardinal significance.
of the color cardinal.
Roman Catholic Church. a high ecclesiastic appointed by the pope to the College of Cardinals and ranking above every other ecclesiastic but the pope.
Also called cardinal grosbeak. a crested grosbeak, Cardinalis cardinalis, of North America, the male of which is bright red.
any of various similar birds.
a deep, rich red color.
a woman’s short cloak with a hood, originally made of scarlet cloth and popularly worn in the 18th century.
cardinal number.
Historical Examples

“Eat an’ drink,” she said, as if these actions were the cardinally important ones of life.
The Call of the Canyon Zane Grey

Thus was he cardinally consigned to the good graces of the Church and of God.
Droll Stories, Complete Honore de Balzac

(RC Church) any of the members of the Sacred College, ranking next after the pope, who elect the pope and act as his chief counsellors
Also called cardinal red. a deep vivid red colour
See cardinal number
Also called cardinal grosbeak, (US) redbird. a crested North American bunting, Richmondena (or Pyrrhuloxia) cardinalis, the male of which has a bright red plumage and the female a brown one
a fritillary butterfly, Pandoriana pandora, found in meadows of southern Europe
a woman’s hooded shoulder cape worn in the 17th and 18th centuries
(usually prenominal) fundamentally important; principal: cardinal sin
of a deep vivid red colour
(astrology) of or relating to the signs Aries, Cancer, Libra, and Capricorn Compare mutable (sense 2), fixed (sense 10)

early 12c., “one of the ecclesiastical princes who constitute the sacred college” (short for cardinalis ecclesiae Romanae or episcopus cardinalis), from Latin cardinalis “principal, chief, essential” (see cardinal (adj.)).

Ecclesiastical use began for the presbyters of the chief (cardinal) churches of Rome. The North American songbird (Cardinalis virginianus) is attested from 1670s, so named for its resemblance to the cardinals in their red robes.

“chief, pivotal,” early 14c., from Latin cardinalis “principal, chief, essential,” from cardo (genitive cardinis) “that on which something turns or depends; pole of the sky,” originally “door hinge,” of unknown origin. Related: Cardinally.

The cardinal points (1540s) are north, south, east, west. The cardinal sins (c.1600) are too well known to require rehearsal. The cardinal virtues (c.1300) were divided into natural (justice prudence, temperance, fortitude) and theological (faith, hope, charity). The natural ones were the original classical ones, which were amended by Christians. But typically in Middle English only the first four were counted as the cardinal virtues:

Of þe uour uirtues cardinales spekeþ moche þe yealde philosofes. [“Ayenbite of Inwyt,” c.1340]

By analogy of this, and cardinal points, cardinal winds, cardinal signs (four zodiacal signs marking the equinoxes and the solstices), the adjective in Middle English acquired an association with the number four.


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