li·​bel | \ ˈlī-bəl How to pronounce libel (audio) \

Essential Meaning of libel

: the act of publishing a false statement that causes people to have a bad opinion of someone He sued the newspaper for libel. The newspaper was found guilty of libel. The newspaper's attorneys argued that the article was not a libel.

Full Definition of libel

 (Entry 1 of 2)

1a : a written statement in which a plaintiff in certain courts sets forth the cause of action or the relief sought
b archaic : a handbill especially attacking or defaming someone
2a : a written or oral defamatory statement or representation that conveys an unjustly unfavorable impression
b(1) : a statement or representation published without just cause and tending to expose another to public contempt
(2) : defamation of a person by written or representational means
(3) : the publication of blasphemous, treasonable, seditious, or obscene writings or pictures
(4) : the act, tort, or crime of publishing such a libel


li·​bel | \ ˈlī-bəl How to pronounce libel (audio) \
libeled or libelled; libeling or libelling\ ˈlī-​b(ə-​)liŋ How to pronounce libel (audio) \

Definition of libel (Entry 2 of 2)

intransitive verb

: to make libelous statements

transitive verb

: to make or publish a libel against (see libel entry 1)

Other Words from libel


libeler \ ˈlī-​b(ə-​)lər How to pronounce libel (audio) \ noun
libelist \ ˈlī-​bə-​list How to pronounce libel (audio) \ noun

Examples of libel in a Sentence

Noun To meet the Supreme Court's definition of libel involving a public figure, a quotation must not only be made up or materially altered. It must also defame the person quoted, and damage his or her reputation or livelihood … — Jane Gross, New York Times, 5 June 1993 It is relevant to note that in 1987 the suit against Ms. Malcolm was dismissed … in a narrow ruling that stated that even if the quotations were "false and mischievous," Ms. Malcolm's alterations did not represent malicious intent and therefore did not constitute libel. — Fred W. Friendly, New York Times Book Review, 25 Feb. 1990 The above is not only a flat lie but a political libel which may possibly damage me. Publish it at your peril … — Bernard Shaw, letter, 16 Sept. 1949 In their tiresome addiction to this use of alleged, the newspapers, though having mainly in mind the danger of libel suits, can urge in further justification the lack of any other single word that exactly expresses their meaning; but the fact that a mud-puddle supplies the shortest route is not a compelling reason for walking through it. — Ambrose Bierce, Write It Right, 1909 He sued the newspaper for libel. The newspaper was found guilty of libel. The newspaper's attorneys argued that the article was not a libel. Verb And in Oklahoma last year, lawyers filed a class-action suit against a group supporting tort reform, saying they had libeled trial lawyers. — Judith Miller, New York Times, 11 June 1996 Government officials, he observed, were public servants who remained accountable to the people and therefore could not be libeled for their performance in office. — Leonard W. Levy, Emergence of a Free Press, 1985 The jury found that the article libeled him. the court decided that the newspaper's reportage of the former mayor, while irresponsible, did not constitute an effort to libel him
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Recent Examples on the Web: Noun The memos predate the libel case against The Times by several years. New York Times, 18 Nov. 2021 Following the loss of his libel case against The Sun, Depp attempted to appeal, but two U.K. justices​​ refused his application for a fresh trial on the grounds that a second hearing was unlikely to produce a different outcome. Alexia Fernández,, 5 Nov. 2021 The public will soon learn a lot more about pop music dealmaking thanks to a marathon libel case headed to trial. Eriq Gardner, Billboard, 20 Oct. 2021 Alabama’s libel law did not require Sullivan to prove harm since the ad did contain factual errors. CNN, 29 Sep. 2021 Sierra Leone rose 10 places to 75 following the repeal of a decades-old criminal libel law that stifled free speech. Amy Gunia, Time, 20 Apr. 2021 While traditional libel law made the defamer absolutely liable for the publishing false information about someone, a middle ground is available: Ditch the actual-malice standard in favor of a negligence standard. WSJ, 29 Mar. 2021 Some of this is through civil laws designed by the powerful for their benefit, as with Disney and US copyright law, or UK libel law. Barath Raghavan, Wired, 9 Mar. 2021 Navalny, who is involved in a separate criminal case, appeared in court on Friday after being charged under a Russian libel law. Zachary Halaschak, Washington Examiner, 5 Feb. 2021 Recent Examples on the Web: Verb Its self-righteous blinders have led it to reflexively libel even accomplished scholars. A. J. Caschetta, National Review, 26 July 2021 The real industry is the network of academics, lawyers, activists, and funders who libel and slander critics of Islamism, even those who cautiously stipulate between Islam and Islamism. A. J. Caschetta, National Review, 26 July 2021 Krull said one of the main things to consider is whether Dakich libeled or defamed anyone. Dana Hunsinger Benbow, Indianapolis Star, 25 Mar. 2020 In 1964, the US Supreme Court, in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, raised the standard for public officials to prove they’d been libeled in their official capacity by news organizations., 9 Mar. 2020 There’s no law against defaming, slandering or libeling the dead. Danielle Bacher, Billboard, 3 Apr. 2019 Gross was threatened with the loss of his Polish state honors and prosecution for ostensibly libelling the nation. Masha Gessen, The New Yorker, 23 Sep. 2019 Gibson’s Bakery filed a lawsuit against the college in 2017, claiming the school and an administrator there hurt their business and libeled them. Jane Morice |, cleveland, 17 Nov. 2019 But then again, I and my family were not libeled as traitors, crooks, deviants, and imbeciles, and put in legal jeopardy for 22 months as the media and ex-Obama officials ginned up hoax after hoax. Victor Davis Hanson, National Review, 27 Aug. 2019

These example sentences are selected automatically from various online news sources to reflect current usage of the word 'libel.' 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 libel


14th century, in the meaning defined at sense 1a


1588, in the meaning defined at intransitive sense

History and Etymology for libel

Noun and Verb

Middle English, written declaration, from Anglo-French, from Latin libellus, diminutive of liber book

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Time Traveler for libel

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The first known use of libel was in the 14th century

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Last Updated

29 Nov 2021

Cite this Entry

“Libel.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 30 Nov. 2021.

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More Definitions for libel


li·​bel | \ ˈlī-bəl How to pronounce libel (audio) \

Kids Definition of libel

 (Entry 1 of 2)

: the publication of a false statement that hurts a person's reputation


libeled or libelled; libeling or libelling

Kids Definition of libel (Entry 2 of 2)

: to hurt a person's reputation by publishing a false statement

Other Words from libel

libeler or libeller noun


li·​bel | \ ˈlī-bəl How to pronounce libel (audio) \

Legal Definition of libel

 (Entry 1 of 2)

1 : complaint sense 1 used especially in admiralty and divorce cases
2a : a defamatory statement or representation especially in the form of written or printed words specifically : a false published statement that injures an individual's reputation (as in business) or otherwise exposes him or her to public contempt
b : the publication of such a libel
c : the crime or tort of publishing a libel — see also single publication rule, New York Times Co. v. Sullivan — compare defamation, slander

Note: Although libel is defined under state case law or statute, the U.S. Supreme Court has enumerated some First Amendment protections that apply to matters of public concern. In New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, the Court held that in order to recover damages a public person (as a celebrity or politician) who alleges libel (as by a newspaper) has to prove that “the statement was made with ‘actual malice’ — that is, with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not” in order to recover damages. The Court has also held that the states cannot allow a private person to recover damages for libel against a media defendant without a showing of fault (as negligence) on the defendant's part. These protections do not apply to matters that are not of public concern (as an individual's credit report) and that are not published by a member of the mass media. A libel plaintiff must generally establish that the alleged libel refers to him or her specifically, that it was published to others, and that some injury (as to reputation) occurred that gives him or her a right to recover damages (as actual, general, presumed, or special damages). The defendant may plead and establish the truth of the statements as a defense. Criminal libel may have additional elements, as in tending to provoke a breach of peace or in blackening the memory of someone who is dead, and may not have to be published to someone other than the person libeled.


transitive verb
libeled also libelled; libeling also libelling

Legal Definition of libel (Entry 2 of 2)

1 : to make or publish a libel against : to hurt the reputation of by libel respondent's complaint alleged that he had been libeled by statements in a full-page advertisementNew York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964)
2 : to proceed against in law by filing a libel (as against a ship or goods) several French ships were libeled in Boston— J. K. Owens

History and Etymology for libel


Anglo-French, from Latin libellus, diminutive of liber book

More from Merriam-Webster on libel

Nglish: Translation of libel for Spanish Speakers

Britannica English: Translation of libel for Arabic Speakers Encyclopedia article about libel


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