im·​pe·​ri·​al·​ism | \ im-ˈpir-ē-ə-ˌli-zəm How to pronounce imperialism (audio) \

Essential Meaning of imperialism

1 : a policy or practice by which a country increases its power by gaining control over other areas of the world British imperialism created the enormous British Empire.
2 : the effect that a powerful country or group of countries has in changing or influencing the way people live in other, poorer countries Western imperialism economic/cultural imperialism

Full Definition of imperialism

1 see usage paragraph below : the policy, practice, or advocacy of extending the power and dominion of a nation especially by direct territorial acquisitions or by gaining indirect control over the political or economic life of other areas … late nineteenth-century imperialism was constituted through and legitimized by a set of complex discourses that exoticized others and positioned European states as better than and often obligated to "assist" those others through political, cultural, and economic interventions.— Mona Domosh … World War II, when powers like the United Kingdom, France, and the Netherlands were looking at the end of their globe-spanning empires, while simultaneously seeing the expansion of imperialism in countries like Japan.— George Yang broadly : the extension or imposition of power, authority, or influence … as the Hollywood movies had already proved, American cultural imperialism was not only too big to fight, it was too seductive to ignore. — Clive James
2 : imperial government, power, or authority: an imperial system ancient Roman imperialism

Other Words from imperialism

imperialist \ im-​ˈpir-​ē-​ə-​list How to pronounce imperialism (audio) \ noun or adjective
imperialistic \ im-​ˌpir-​ē-​ə-​ˈli-​stik How to pronounce imperialism (audio) \ adjective
imperialistically \ im-​ˌpir-​ē-​ə-​ˈli-​sti-​k(ə-​)lē How to pronounce imperialism (audio) \ adverb

Usage of Colonialism and Imperialism

In contexts dealing with the domination of a people or area by a foreign power, colonialism and imperialism are often used together with no real distinction in meaning. Used separately, however, each of these words can take on a slightly different emphasis. Colonialism comes from colony, and tends to be applied in contexts addressing the effects that colonialism has on the lives of those living in colonies. Imperialism is closely related to empire and therefore tends to place more emphasis on the ruling power and its intent to expand its dominion, as well as on the expanded empire itself, with its distinct parts subsumed under the banner of the dominating force.

Linguistic Roots of Imperialism

The original meaning of imperialism was a simple one: "imperial government," that is, empire in the classical sense (such as existed in ancient Rome, China, and Greece). In more recent times, imperialism has become synonymous with western hegemony in Africa and Asia from the 18th through the 20th centuries and with the spreading cultural influence of the United States. Formerly implying military and governmental dominance, the word today is often invoked in a wider variety of contexts, such as cultural imperialism, media imperialism, and economic imperialism. And while there has been considerable debate about the net effects of western dominance in other parts of the world, in its current use, imperialism often carries a negative connotation.

Examples of imperialism in a Sentence

British imperialism created the enormous British Empire.
Recent Examples on the Web At one point, Young opened up a question to the entire class: Of the five elements of oppression — violence, exploitation, marginalization, powerlessness, cultural imperialism — which ones, their teacher asked, relate to settler colonialism? Los Angeles Times, 10 Nov. 2021 Making room for race seems crucial when trying to explain U.S. tax imperialism in the Caribbean basin. Joseph Thorndike, Forbes, 30 Aug. 2021 His monumental artworks celebrating Japanese imperialism, at one time the source of honor and renown, have taken on a shameful meaning in the democratizing postwar era. New York Times, 23 Feb. 2021 In the light of this show’s recent obsession with imperialism, the pointy objects are missiles that have to hit small circular targets on a high beam. Kyndall Cunningham, Vulture, 27 Oct. 2021 Moyn’s anti-imperialism emerged as a younger generation of thinkers, who came of age after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, were developing their own critiques of American power; many, in fact, were students at Columbia, where Moyn then taught. Daniel Bessner, The New Republic, 8 Sep. 2021 None of this is new: such balance-sheet historical apologetics have always been central to imperialism. Fara Dabhoiwala, The New York Review of Books, 1 July 2021 King’s later radicalism is unintelligible without grasping how Malcolm, primarily through his influence on the Black Power generation, shaped King’s views on civil disobedience, white supremacy, and, above all, American imperialism. Brandon M. Terry, The New York Review of Books, 11 Mar. 2021 The Radical Hood Library is stocked with books on various topics including Black resistance and imperialism — all available to the public for free. Stephanie Long,, 6 Oct. 2021

These example sentences are selected automatically from various online news sources to reflect current usage of the word 'imperialism.' Views expressed in the examples do not represent the opinion of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback.

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First Known Use of imperialism

1684, in the meaning defined at sense 2

History and Etymology for imperialism

imperial entry 1 + -ism

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Time Traveler for imperialism

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The first known use of imperialism was in 1684

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Dictionary Entries Near imperialism

imperial green



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Last Updated

21 Nov 2021

Cite this Entry

“Imperialism.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 28 Nov. 2021.

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