: something owed : obligation
unable to pay off his debts
owe them a debt of gratitude
a criminal's debt to society
: a state of being under obligation to pay or repay someone or something in return for something received : a state of owing
deeply in debt to creditors
law and business : the common-law action for the recovery of money held to be due
: sin, trespass
Forgive us our debts.
debtless adjective

Example Sentences

He is trying to pay off gambling debts. The company has run up huge debts. Their debts are piling up. He's been working three jobs in an attempt to get out of debt. The company was in debt but is now turning a profit. I am deep in debt. I'm thousands of dollars in debt. She went into debt to pay for college. I'm worried that we will fall into debt. See More
Recent Examples on the Web Washington:Marjorie Taylor Greene called for decorum during debt ceiling fight. Marina Pitofsky, USA TODAY, 25 May 2023 Photo: Nathan Howard/Bloomberg News Fitch Ratings is reviewing whether the U.S. should retain its top credit rating as the White House and Republicans struggle to reach an agreement on raising the debt limit. Andrew Duehren, WSJ, 25 May 2023 Amir Hamja/Bloomberg via Getty Images Trending News What to do with your money as the U.S. inches toward a debt default College majors have a big impact on income. Irina Ivanova, CBS News, 24 May 2023 Without the Freedom Caucus, Republicans wouldn’t have 218 votes to raise the debt ceiling. Paul Kane, Washington Post, 24 May 2023 Conservative groups have criticized Republicans for not including the safety-net programs in debt demands. Jim Tankersley, New York Times, 24 May 2023 White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre singled out a number of Republican lawmakers by name Wednesday for their actions during the debt ceiling negotiations between President Joe Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA). Christian Datoc, Washington Examiner, 24 May 2023 There is no indication that either idea is under consideration, though Treasury Secretary James A. Baker III threatened to sell gold bonds during a similar debt ceiling standoff in the 1980s. Jeff Stein, Rachel Siegel And Tony Romm, Anchorage Daily News, 24 May 2023 Dallas’ leadership has openly expressed interest in re-signing Irving after his blockbuster trade arrival added to the franchise’s future draft-pick debt. Callie Caplan, Dallas News, 18 May 2023 See More

These examples are programmatically compiled from various online sources to illustrate current usage of the word 'debt.' Any opinions expressed in the examples do not represent those of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback about these examples.

Word History


Middle English dette, debte, from Anglo-French dette something owed, from Vulgar Latin *debita, from Latin, plural of debitum debt, from neuter of debitus, past participle of debēre to owe, from de- + habēre to have — more at give

First Known Use

13th century, in the meaning defined at sense 4

Time Traveler
The first known use of debt was in the 13th century

Dictionary Entries Near debt

Cite this Entry

“Debt.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 7 Jun. 2023.

Kids Definition


: something owed to another : a thing or amount due
pay a debt of $10
: a condition of owing
hopelessly in debt

Legal Definition


: something owed: as
: a specific sum of money or a performance due another especially by agreement (as a loan agreement)
to pay the debts…of the United StatesU.S. Constitution art. I
a debt for alimony
: an obligation to pay or perform on another's claim
discharged the debt
compare asset, equity sense 4

Note: It is often up to the courts to decide what is or is not a debt under various laws. Courts disagree whether criminal restitution is a debt under the Bankruptcy Code.

antecedent debt
: debt that is incurred prior to a property transfer paying or securing the debt compare preference
bad debt
: a debt that cannot be collected

Note: An income tax deduction is allowed for bad debts.

consumer debt
: debt that is incurred by an individual primarily for the purchase of consumer goods or services compare consumer credit
judgment debt
: a debt established by a judgment and enforceable by a legal process (as an execution of judgment or attachment)
: a state of owing
in debt
: the aggregate of money owed
the national debt
: the common-law action for the recovery of a specified sum of money or a sum that can be simply and certainly determined

called also action of debt, writ of debt

compare assumpsit, covenant

Old French dette, ultimately from Latin debita, plural of debitum debt, from neuter of debitus, past participle of debere to owe

More from Merriam-Webster on debt

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