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  1. a smooth, rounded bead formed within the shells of certain mollusks and composed of the mineral aragonite or calcite in a matrix, deposited in concentric layers as a protective coating around an irritating foreign object: valued as a gem when lustrous and finely colored.Compare cultured pearl.
  2. something resembling this, as various synthetic substances for use in costume jewelry.
  3. something similar in form, luster, etc., as a dewdrop or a capsule of medicine.
  4. something precious or choice; the finest example of anything: pearls of wisdom.
  5. a very pale gray approaching white but commonly with a bluish tinge.
  6. mother-of-pearl: a pearl-handled revolver.
  7. Printing. a 5-point type.
  8. Also called epithelial pearl. Pathology. a rounded mass of keratin occurring in certain carcinomas of the skin.
verb (used with object)
  1. to adorn or stud with or as with pearls.
  2. to make like pearls, as in form or color.
verb (used without object)
  1. to dive, fish, or search for pearls.
  2. to assume a pearllike form or appearance.
  1. resembling a pearl in form or color.
  2. of or relating to pearls: pearl diving.
  3. set with a pearl or pearls or covered or inlaid with pearls or mother-of-pearl: a pearl necklace.
  4. having or reduced to small, rounded grains.
  1. cast pearls before swine, to offer or give something of great value to those incapable of appreciating it: She read them Shakespeare but it was casting pearls before swine.

Origin of pearl1

1300–50; Middle English perle < Middle French < Italian or assumed Vulgar Latin *perla (> German Perle, Old English pærl), for Latin *pernula (> Portuguese perola, perhaps Old Saxon përula), diminutive of Latin perna sea mussel
Related formspearl·er, nounpearl·ish, adjectivepearl·like, adjective


verb (used with or without object), noun
  1. purl1.


  1. a town in central Mississippi.
  2. a female given name.


or pearl

verb (used with or without object)
  1. to knit with a reverse stitch.
  2. to finish with loops or a looped edging.
  1. a basic stitch in knitting, the reverse of the knit, formed by pulling a loop of the working yarn back through an existing stitch and then slipping that stitch off the needle.Compare knit(def 11).
  2. one of a series of small loops along the edge of lace braid.
  3. thread made of twisted gold or silver wire.

Origin of purl1

First recorded in 1520–30; variant of obsolete or dial. pirl to twist (threads, etc.) into a cord
Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2018

Examples from the Web for pearls

Contemporary Examples

Historical Examples

  • And the pearls, the young chief's necklace, what became of that?

    The Trail Book

    Mary Austin

  • "I've been a fool," said Eileen, tugging at the pearls viciously.

    Her Father's Daughter

    Gene Stratton-Porter

  • We are not feasting on baked swans, peacock tongues and drinking our pearls.

    Her Father's Daughter

    Gene Stratton-Porter

  • Cecilia wore a silver crown, in which glistened the most brilliant of pearls.

    The Dream

    Emile Zola

  • And with a low bow he handed to her a beautiful necklace of pearls.

    Fair Margaret

    H. Rider Haggard

British Dictionary definitions for pearls


  1. a hard smooth lustrous typically rounded structure occurring on the inner surface of the shell of a clam or oyster: consists of calcium carbonate secreted in layers around an invading particle such as a sand grain; much valued as a gemRelated adjectives: margaric, margaritic
  2. any artificial gem resembling this
  3. See mother-of-pearl
  4. a person or thing that is like a pearl, esp in beauty or value
  5. a pale greyish-white colour, often with a bluish tinge
  6. a size of printer's type, approximately equal to 5 point
  1. of, made of, or set with pearl or mother-of-pearl
  2. having the shape or colour of a pearl
  1. (tr) to set with or as if with pearls
  2. to shape into or assume a pearl-like form or colour
  3. (intr) to dive or search for pearls

Word Origin

C14: from Old French, from Vulgar Latin pernula (unattested), from Latin perna sea mussel


noun, verb
  1. a variant spelling of purl 1 (def. 2), purl 1 (def. 3), purl 1 (def. 5)


  1. Also called: purl stitch a knitting stitch made by doing a plain stitch backwards
  2. a decorative border, as of lace
  3. gold or silver wire thread
  1. to knit (a row or garment) in purl stitch
  2. to edge (something) with a purl
Also (for senses 2, 3, 5): pearl

Word Origin

C16: from dialect pirl to twist into a cord


  1. (intr) (of a stream, etc) to flow with a gentle curling or rippling movement and a murmuring sound
  1. a curling movement of water; eddy
  2. a murmuring sound, as of a shallow stream

Word Origin

C16: related to Norwegian purla to bubble
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012

Word Origin and History for pearls



mid-13c., from Old French perle (13c.) and directly from Medieval Latin perla (mid-13c.), of unknown origin. Perhaps from Vulgar Latin *pernula, diminutive of Latin perna, which in Sicily meant "pearl," earlier "sea-mussel," literally "ham, haunch, gammon," so called for the shape of the mollusk shells.

Other theories connect it with the root of pear, also somehow based on shape, or Latin pilula "globule," with dissimilation. The usual Latin word for "pearl" was margarita (see margarite).

For pearls before swine, see swine. Pearl Harbor translates Hawaiian Wai Momi, literally "pearl waters," so named for the pearl oysters found there; transferred sense of "effective sudden attack" is attested from 1942 (in reference to Dec. 7, 1941).



"knit with inverted stitches," 1825; earlier "embroider with gold or silver thread" (1520s), probably from Middle English pirlyng "revolving, twisting," of unknown origin. The two senses usually are taken as one word, but even this is not certain. Klein suggests a source in Italian pirolare "to twirl," from pirolo "top." As a noun, from late 14c. as "bordering, frills," 1530s as "twisted thread of gold and silver."



"flow with a murmuring sound," 1580s, imitative, perhaps from a Scandinavian language. Related: Purled; purling.

Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2010 Douglas Harper

pearls in Medicine


  1. A small sphere of thin glass containing amyl nitrite or other volatile fluid, designed to be crushed, as in a handkerchief, so that its contents can be inhaled.
  2. Any of a number of small tough masses of mucus occurring in the sputum in asthma.
The American Heritage® Stedman's Medical Dictionary Copyright © 2002, 2001, 1995 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company.

pearls in Science


  1. A smooth, slightly iridescent, white or grayish rounded growth inside the shells of some mollusks. Pearls form as a reaction to the presence of a foreign particle, and consist of thin layers of mother-of-pearl that are deposited around the particle. The pearls of oysters are often valued as gems.
The American Heritage® Science Dictionary Copyright © 2011. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

Idioms and Phrases with pearls


The American Heritage® Idioms Dictionary Copyright © 2002, 2001, 1995 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.