piety

noun

pi·​e·​ty ˈpī-ə-tē How to pronounce piety (audio)
plural pieties
1
: the quality or state of being pious: such as
a
: fidelity to natural obligations (as to parents)
b
: dutifulness in religion : devoutness
2
: an act inspired by piety
3
: a conventional belief or standard : orthodoxy

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The Complicated Uses of Pious

Pious has a bit of an image problem. From the beginning of its use in the 15th century this Latin descendant has been used to describe those who are simply very religious—that is, who are deeply devoted to their religion—but it has for centuries also described those who make a show of their religiousness and use it to assert their superiority. We see both in literature:

She sent for a minister, too, a serious, pious, good man, and applied herself with such earnestness, by his assistance, to the work of a sincere repentance, that I believe, and so did the minister too, that she was a true penitent….
— Daniel Defoe, Moll Flanders, 1722

There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root, and it may be that he who bestows the largest amount of time and money on the needy is doing the most by his mode of life to produce that misery which he strives in vain to relieve. It is the pious slave-breeder devoting the proceeds of every tenth slave to buy a Sunday's liberty for the rest.
— Henry David Thoreau, Walden, 1854

Over the years other meanings have developed too. Pious can be used positively to describe those who are dutiful or virtuous, or things that are worthy. And it can be used negatively to describe hypocrisy. It is also used neutrally to distinguish what is religious from what is nonreligious in content, as in this humorous excerpt from Emily Brontë's 1847 Wuthering Heights:

Joseph was an elderly, nay, an old man—very old, perhaps, though hale and sinewy. "The Lord help us!" he soliloquized in an undertone of peevish displeasure, while relieving me of my horse, looking, meantime, in my face so sourly that I charitably conjectured he must have need of divine aid to digest his dinner, and his pious ejaculation had no reference to my unexpected advent.

Because the word is about religion and religiousness, many associate pious with the Bible. It is, however, wholly absent from many translations of the Bible, probably because of its ambiguous meaning. Pious is, though, included in The New Revised Standard Version and the paraphrasing Living Bible, among a number of others:

The blessing of the Lord is the reward of the pious, and quickly God causes his blessing to flourish.
— Sirach 11:22, New Revised Standard Version

You try to look like saintly men, but underneath those pious robes of yours are hearts besmirched with every sort of hypocrisy and sin.
— Matthew 23:28, The Living Bible

Piety, which most often refers to simple religious devotion, doesn't have the same problem, and is more widely used in biblical translations.

Choose the Right Synonym for piety

fidelity, allegiance, fealty, loyalty, devotion, piety mean faithfulness to something to which one is bound by pledge or duty.

fidelity implies strict and continuing faithfulness to an obligation, trust, or duty.

marital fidelity

allegiance suggests an adherence like that of citizens to their country.

pledging allegiance

fealty implies a fidelity acknowledged by the individual and as compelling as a sworn vow.

fealty to the truth

loyalty implies a faithfulness that is steadfast in the face of any temptation to renounce, desert, or betray.

valued the loyalty of his friends

devotion stresses zeal and service amounting to self-dedication.

a painter's devotion to her art

piety stresses fidelity to obligations regarded as natural and fundamental.

filial piety

Examples of piety in a Sentence

He was admired for his extreme piety. her piety is quiet but profound
Recent Examples on the Web Some onlookers question why a senator whose piety, moral compass and optimism hangs prominently before him has embraced the twice-divorced and four-times-indicted former president whose campaign rhetoric has so heavily focused on doom. Sarah D. Wire, USA TODAY, 7 July 2024 My favorite saying about my fellow Jews emphasizes not our tenacity or our piety but something much more important: our passion for disagreement. Becca Rothfeld, Washington Post, 3 July 2024 This duty granted Victorian mothers a degree of esteem; ideal mothers could obtain a limited (but heretofore absent) degree of education in their path toward piety. Jenny Noyce, JSTOR Daily, 28 June 2024 Muslim Women and the Politics of the Headscarf For many women, wearing the hijab was—and is—an element of piety, but it's been coopted into a political symbol. JSTOR Daily, 24 June 2024 See all Example Sentences for piety 

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

Word History

Etymology

French pieté piety, pity, from Old French, from Latin pietat-, pietas, from pius dutiful, pious

First Known Use

circa 1500, in the meaning defined at sense 1

Time Traveler
The first known use of piety was circa 1500

Dictionary Entries Near piety

Cite this Entry

“Piety.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/piety. Accessed 17 Jul. 2024.

Kids Definition

piety

noun
pi·​ety
ˈpī-ət-ē
plural pieties
1
: the quality or state of being pious : dutifulness in religion
2
: a pious act

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