- any of numerous aquatic birds of the subfamily Sterninae of the family Laridae, related to the gulls but usually having a more slender body and bill, smaller feet, a long, deeply forked tail, and a more graceful flight, especially those of the genus Sterna, as S. hirundo (common tern), of Eurasia and America, having white, black, and gray plumage.
Origin of tern1
1670–80; < Danish terne or Norwegian terna; cognate with Old Norse therna
- a set of three.
- three winning numbers drawn together in a lottery.
- a prize won by drawing these.
Origin of tern2
1300–50; Middle English terne < Middle French < Italian terno < Latin ternus, singular of ternī three each, triad, akin to ter thrice; see three
Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2018
Examples from the Web for tern
A name on our northern coasts for the Sterna hirundo, the tern, or sea-swallow.
The tern, a bird resembling the gull, but more slender and swift.
The bird which produces the guano is a sort of tern, with red bill and legs.A Voyage round the World
As regards pace on the wing the kingfisher is no match for the tern.
He had not risen a yard above the water when the tern noticed that he had quarry.
- any aquatic bird of the subfamily Sterninae, having a forked tail, long narrow wings, a pointed bill, and a typically black-and-white plumage: family Laridae (gulls, etc), order Charadriiformes
C18: from Old Norse therna; related to Norwegian terna, Swedish tärna
- a three-masted schooner
- rare a group of three
C14: from Old French terne, from Italian terno, from Latin ternī three each; related to Latin ter thrice, trēs three
Word Origin and History for tern
gull-like shore bird (subfamily Sterninae), 1670s, via East Anglian dialect, from a Scandinavian source (cf. Danish terne, Swedish tärna, Færoese terna) related to Old Norse þerna "tern," cognate with Old English stearn "starling."
Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2010 Douglas Harper