[ ri-kur-siv ]
/ rɪˈkɜr sɪv /
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pertaining to or using a rule or procedure that can be applied repeatedly.
Mathematics, Computers. pertaining to or using the mathematical process of recursion: a recursive function; a recursive procedure.
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Fill in the blank: I can’t figure out _____ gave me this gift.

Origin of recursive

First recorded in 1935–40; recurs(ion) + -ive


re·cur·sive·ly, adverbre·cur·sive·ness, noun
Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2023


What does recursive mean?

Something that’s recursive is looped, especially in a way that allows a process to keep repeating.

Recursive has very specific meanings in math, computer programming, and linguistics, but in each case it involves some form of repetition, especially when part of a sequence or formula relies on previous parts. Such a process is called recursion.

Example: The program is recursive: once it finishes its search function, it automatically begins again at the beginning.

Where does recursive come from?

Recursive has been around since at least the late 1700s. It comes from a combination of the Latin recursiōn-, which means “a running back,” and the adjective suffix -ive. Its noun form, recursion, has been recorded since the early 1600s. The -curs- bit in recursive comes from a word meaning to run that also shows up in words like occur. In this way, you can think of recursive as meaning re-running.

Recursive originally just meant “continually repeating,” but by the mid-1900s, it had developed a specialized mathematical sense. The math sense relates to the application of a function to its own values to generate an infinite sequence of values. The equation that gives us the famous Fibonacci sequence is such a process.

From this mathematical usage came the computational application of recursive algorithms: processes that solve a big problem by solving smaller versions of the problem. In linguistics, recursive elements are those that repeat in some pattern. For instance, bad in He’s a bad, bad man is recursive, and so is the noun-verb construction in She said he thought we knew she felt that it was a bad idea.

If you don’t quite understand recursive yet, reading this article again from the beginning would be a good idea (and recursive!).

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What are some other forms of recursive?

What are some synonyms for recursive?

What are some words that share a root or word element with recursive?

What are some words that often get used in discussing recursive?

What are some words recursive may be commonly confused with?

How is recursive used in real life?

Recursive is most often used in the context of computer programming. More generally, it is used to describe situations involving some kind of looping.



Try using recursive!

Which of the following words doesn’t fit with the general meaning of recursive?

A. looping
B. repeating
C. recurrent
D. terminating

How to use recursive in a sentence