per·​se·​cute ˈpər-si-ˌkyüt How to pronounce persecute (audio)
persecuted; persecuting

transitive verb

: to harass or punish in a manner designed to injure, grieve, or afflict
specifically : to cause to suffer because of belief
: to annoy with persistent or urgent approaches (such as attacks, pleas, or importunities) : pester
persecutee noun
persecutive adjective
persecutor noun
ˈpər-si-kyü-ˌtȯr-ē How to pronounce persecute (audio)

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Prosecute vs. Persecute

Take care to distinguish between prosecuted and persecuted, although we sincerely hope that neither word applies to you. Persecute typically has a small range of meanings, such as “to harass or punish in a manner designed to injure, grieve, or afflict.” Although the word is occasionally found in dialectal use to mean “prosecute,” many usage guides consider this to be an error. Prosecute is generally found today in a legal context (“to bring legal action against for redress or punishment of a crime or violation of law”), although the word may also be used to mean “to follow to the end” or “to engage in.” If someone is prosecuted they are being tried in a court of law; if they are persecuted they are being targeted and harassed.

Choose the Right Synonym for persecute

wrong, oppress, persecute, aggrieve mean to injure unjustly or outrageously.

wrong implies inflicting injury either unmerited or out of proportion to what one deserves.

a penal system that had wronged him

oppress suggests inhumane imposing of burdens one cannot endure or exacting more than one can perform.

a people oppressed by a warmongering tyrant

persecute implies a relentless and unremitting subjection to annoyance or suffering.

a child persecuted by constant criticism

aggrieve implies suffering caused by an infringement or denial of rights.

a legal aid society representing aggrieved minority groups

Examples of persecute in a Sentence

The country's leaders relentlessly persecuted those who fought against the regime. They were persecuted for their beliefs.
Recent Examples on the Web This is the stage when migrants state that they could be persecuted, tortured or even killed if they are sent back to their countries. Sergio Martínez-Beltrán, NPR, 10 May 2024 The German dictator Adolf Hitler was responsible for the Holocaust, a genocidal campaign during World War II that persecuted and systematically murdered Jewish people as well as others, including the Roma, the Slavs, people with disabilities and gay people. Ariane Lange, Sacramento Bee, 8 May 2024 The themes were intertwined, since Jews had been persecuted throughout the ages and therefore deserved a homeland, and that homeland was Israel. Jill Gurvey, Twin Cities, 2 May 2024 Key to these plans is the Comstock Act, the 19th-century anti-vice law named for the crusading bluenose Anthony Comstock, who persecuted Margaret Sanger, arrested thousands, and boasted of driving 15 of his targets to suicide. Michelle Goldberg, The Mercury News, 11 Apr. 2024 Moon worked to cast himself as a martyr persecuted for an unconventional faith, drawing support from a range of civil libertarians and religious conservatives, including Jerry Falwell and Tim LaHaye. TIME, 4 Apr. 2024 The Russians who oppose Putin’s war and politics have been ostracized, often forced into exile or persecuted for their views as part of a sweeping crackdown on dissent not seen since the Soviet era. Yuliya Talmazan, NBC News, 18 Mar. 2024 Others give a string of explanations without evidence — from rumors of American laboratories and NATO bases located near the border, to stories of Ukrainians persecuting Russian-speakers. Francesca Ebel, Washington Post, 15 Mar. 2024 Its depictions of dancing devils and witches’ sabbaths are supposed to scare viewers straight, but writer-director Benjamin Christensen is also sympathetic towards the plight of medieval women persecuted for witchcraft. Katie Rife,, 12 Mar. 2024

These examples are programmatically compiled from various online sources to illustrate current usage of the word 'persecute.' 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, from Middle French persecuter, back-formation from persecuteur persecutor, from Late Latin persecutor, from persequi to persecute, from Latin, to pursue, from per- through + sequi to follow — more at sue

First Known Use

15th century, in the meaning defined at sense 1

Time Traveler
The first known use of persecute was in the 15th century

Dictionary Entries Near persecute

Cite this Entry

“Persecute.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 19 May. 2024.

Kids Definition


per·​se·​cute ˈpər-si-ˌkyüt How to pronounce persecute (audio)
persecuted; persecuting
: to treat continually in a way meant to be cruel or harmful
especially : to cause to suffer because of belief
persecutor noun
persecutory adjective

More from Merriam-Webster on persecute

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